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NFL Finds NFL Innocent in Ray Rice Debacle

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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To quote New York Post columnist Bart Hubbuch, "The only surprise about the Mueller report was that the NFL didn't announce it at 4:59 p.m. ET on a Friday."

Actually, the league's so-called "independent investigation" into its handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case was so utterly uncritical and unenlightening that there was no reason for Commission Roger Goodell to bury it in the Friday "news dump." 

The investigator, former FBI director Robert Mueller, found that the NFL "should have done more" to thoroughly investigate and discipline Rice, but ultimately concluded that league officials did not see the infamous video of him striking his fiancee in a hotel elevator before handing down punishment. This directly contradicts a September Associated Press report stating that the league received the tape in April and, despite the visceral footage, still doled out only a two-game suspension.

The question of whether the NFL, and specifically Goodell, had viewed the tape before the Rice decision has been at the forefront of the discussion on the extent of the league's wrongdoing. The self-commissioned report mainly serves to support the NFL's strategy to acknowledge ancillary incompetence while dispelling accusations of a deliberate cover-up.

But as many of us have noted for months, the discussion doesn't end there. NFL incompetence was already a given, so the conclusions Mueller released yesterday are far from groundbreaking. What the report fails to decipher is whether the league's incompetence was intentional, meant to maintain the sort of plausible deniability that can be reinforced at a later date -- in this case, yesterday.

Suspicions of the NFL's willful ignorance don't just start and end with the elevator tape. When Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled last month that Rice didn't lie to the league in his appeal of his indefinite suspension -- the second, tougher punishment Goodell handed in what seemed clearly an effort to save face -- she pointed to the same kind of investigative failings confirmed by Mueller. Specifically, she criticizes Goodell for not taking proper notes during his meeting with Rice, a failure that allowed the commissioner and the league to continue to defend themselves by citing the "ambiguity" of what really took place in that elevator. The question needs to be asked: Did the NFL really want to know?

Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg drives home the point of the major flaw in the Mueller report: It was only concerned with material evidence. Sure, it gave a nod to procedural mistakes, but only enough to distract from the bigger issues.

The Mueller report is thus a perfect allegory for the NFL's entire public-relations strategy. It's an apt follow-up for a much-hyped "overhaul" of the NFL's disciplinary process, which uses a lot of empty words to give the appearance of reform while not addressing the root problem: the concentration of all power in the commissioner's office.

Of course, we expected nothing more from an investigation that was independent in name only, overseen by two long-standing team owners and directed by Mueller, whose law firm has represented the NFL in multimillion-dollar negotiations.  And now we have achieved "closure," at least according to so-called media reporter Judy Batista at the league's site NFL.com: "Goodell's job is safe, and now the NFL will move on, perhaps chastened by the entire embarrassing episode."

No, the real embarrassment is that neither Goodell, in his investigation of Rice, nor Mueller, in his investigation of Goodell, seemed particularly concerned with finding the whole truth. If Goodell failed to ask the right questions, the same can be said of Mueller. In both cases, it's increasingly clear why.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net