That video was at the center of a controversy surrounding the NFL’s handling of the incident that marred much of the NFL’s season, sparked intense criticism of Commissioner Roger Goodell and led to Rice’s release from the Baltimore Ravens.
In September, an Associated Press report quoted an unnamed law enforcement official saying he had anonymously sent a copy of the video shot from inside the elevator to the NFL, prior to its public release by TMZ, and received a voice message from a female acknowledging it had been received. The NFL denied anyone in its office had seen the video before its airing by TMZ.
“After a review of all information gathered from the League, as well as information made available to us by third parties, we found no evidence that the in-elevator video was sent to the League or, if sent, was actually received or viewed by the League,” Mueller’s report said.
The NFL did not escape the report unscathed, however.
“We concluded there was substantial information about the incident–even without the in-elevator video–indicating the need for a more thorough investigation,” a written release accompanying Mueller’s report said. “The NFL should have done more with the information it had, and should have taken additional steps to obtain all available information about the February 15 incident.”
The 96-page report faulted league investigators for, among other things, failing to contact police officers involved in the case, the Atlantic County prosecutor’s office and representatives of the hotel at which the incident occurred.
“Had the League taken additional investigative steps, it may have obtained more information about what occurred inside the elevator, including possibly securing the in-elevator video,” the report said.
The NFL appointed Mueller in the wake of the AP’s report to investigate its actions in the Rice case, which were heavily criticized by fans, media members, domestic violence experts and women’s rights groups.
A 10-page executive summary accompanying the report said Mueller and his investigators interviewed Goodell and more than 50 NFL employees; interviewed “every female employee, contractor, vendor, or intern whose electronic badge recorded that she was in the League’s main office on April 9, the date the alleged call was made;” analyzed “millions of documents, emails, and text messages from the League’s network;” searched the computers and phones of Goodell and other league executives; and identified the recipients of each of the nearly 1,600 phone calls placed from the NFL’s main number April 9.
The executive summary said Mueller and his investigators “were unable to obtain from the Associated Press information that would have helped identify a female caller who reportedly left a voicemail acknowledging receipt of the in-elevator video. We respect that the news media has a longstanding and well-founded policy of protecting the confidentiality of its sources, and we did not expect the Associated Press to identify its source.”
The AP, in a statement by its executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, said: “We have reviewed the report and stand by our original reporting.”
Mueller’s findings figure to conclude the rockiest stretch in Goodell’s stewardship of the league, one in which he drew widespread criticsm. Owners of NFL teams said after Mueller’s report was released that they remained strongly supportive of Goodell.
“There was resounding support for Roger and a belief he did tell the truth,” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II said of the feelings expressed by owners in a conference call they held earlier Thursday to discuss the report’s conclusions.
Rooney said in an afternoon conference call with reporters, “There’s no question the AP is certainly within their rights not to disclose their sources. … I just think we have to let people draw their own conclusions.”
Goodell has said the NFL made mistakes in its investigation of Rice but he and other league officials have staunchly and repeatedly denied seeing the video from inside the elevator prior to its public release. People familiar with the thinking of NFL owners had said Goodell’s job would be in jeopardy only if the Mueller report had concluded that Goodell was guilty of egregious and willful misconduct.
The report did not stop some of Goodell’s strongest critics from continuing to call for him to be replaced as commissioner.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said in a written statement: “This non-report report is yet another reason why NOW continues to demand for new, competent leadership at the NFL. The league needs a leader who will seriously commit to appointing an independent investigator with full authority to ask the questions that are actually meaningful.”
Though Mueller led an independent investigation, he was appointed to the role and paid by the NFL. Mueller works for a law firm, WilmerHale, that has represented the NFL in television negotiations and formerly employed Richard Cass, now the president of the Ravens. The NFL defended the independence of Mueller’s investigation throughout the process.
Goodell said in a written statement Thursday that “we accept [Mueller’s] findings and recommendations,” adding that the league has “already addressed many of these points in the revisions to the Personal Conduct Policy that were announced last month.”
Goodell also said: “While this investigation has now concluded, our focus on the underlying issues and our commitment to positive change remain as strong as ever. We have all learned a great deal in the past months and expect to be judged by how we lead going forward on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.”
The league announced a new personal conduct policy for players and other employees last month. Under it, Goodell relinquished his authority to make initial disciplinary rulings in cases involving off-field misconduct but retained his power to resolve any appeals of those rulings. The NFL is to hire a new chief disciplinary officer to conduct its own investigations of such incidents and make initial disciplinary rulings. The players’ union had sought to have appeals in cases of off-field misconduct heard by an independent arbitrator.
The NFL suspended Rice indefinitely in September, following the release of the TMZ video, after initially suspending Rice for only two games for the incident. Former federal judge Barbara S. Jones overturned Rice’s indefinite suspension on appeal by Rice through the NFL Players Association. Jones reinstated Rice but he has not been signed by another NFL team after he was released from the Ravens in September.