An independent investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller has found "no evidence" that the NFL possessed or viewed the full footage of Ray Rice's in-elevator assault on his then-fiancee Janay Palmer before it was made public. The investigation, which was launched last September after leaked video of Rice knocking out Palmer created a media firestorm, also determined that a there was no proof that an April 9 voice mail message confirmed the NFL's prior receipt of the footage.
After interviewing more than 200 NFL employees and gaining unprecedented access to the league's trove of digital data and hard copy documents, the Mueller investigation concluded that the league made errors in judgement, but did not deliberately cover-up or ignore Rice's actions.
"We concluded there was substantial information about the incident -- even without the in-elevator video -- indicating the need for a more thorough investigation," the report, which was released Thursday, 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 report also concluded that the NFL's long-standing policy of deferring to law enforcement when it comes to issues of player violence "led to deficiencies in the League's collection and analysis of information during its investigation." It concluded by recommending that the NFL needs to a better job of training and supervising its investigators, and the report suggested that the creation a specialized investigative team focused specifically on domestic violence and sexual abuse cases may be necessary.
New York Giants president John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II released a joint statement Thursday praising Mueller's findings, while conceding that the report correctly identified the NFL's deficiencies.
"As owners, we are the first to agree that the NFL did not have a sufficient policy in place to deal with players or other personnel accused of domestic violence," they wrote. "As leaders of this sport, it is our responsibility to recognize the pain domestic violence causes to families in our league and in our society. We were slow to react, and in the case of Ray Rice, the original punishment was insufficient."
Still, both Mara and Rooney said they have "every confidence" that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should continue to lead the league going forward.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) was far less sanguine with their response to the report. In a statement titled, "How Do You Spell Whitewash? N-F-L," NOW president Terry O'Neill said, "If one of Robert Mueller's FBI agents had turned in a report as incomplete as the Ray Rice investigation, that agent would have been transferred to Peoria."
"Roger Goodell continues to run away from the questions that need to be investigated: When the NFL learns of an intimate partner violence incident, what immediate steps does it take to ensure the physical safety of the victim? What does the league do to ensure survivors' longer-term economic security? What concrete steps has the NFL taken to change its business model - the way it treats cheerleaders, the absence of women in positions of authority, the failure to deal transparently with traumatic brain injury, the too-cosy relationship between league security and law enforcement - in order to reduce both the incidence and harm done by intimate partner violence attacks?" she wrote in criticism of what she called a "non-report."
For his part, Goodell thanks Mueller for conducting what he called as "extremely thorough and detailed investigation," and he said the NFL accepts the report's findings. "
"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," he said in a statement.
For the NFL and Goodell, the findings could present a welcome reprieve after months of bad press and speculation that the league failed to act appropriately when it first learned of Rice's actions. After the February assault became public, the NFL eventually suspended Rice, a Super Bowl champion running back for the Baltimore Ravens, for just two games. After video showing Rice knocking out Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator last February was leaked to the public in September 2014, Goodell extended Rice's suspension to an indefinite ban from the league. His decision was later overturned on appeal.
Goodell has maintained from the beginning that Rice had not fully characterized the nature of the domestic incident in February and that he never saw the entire footage of the assault until the public-at-large did. Both Rice and his now-wife Janay have disputed that claim, arguing that the ex-NFL star was completely thorough in describing what occurred when he was interviewed by Goodell in the immediate aftermath of the assault.
Rice pleaded not guilty to assault charges and was sentenced to a pretrial intervention program, which allowed him to avoid jail time and clear the arrest record.
The Ray Rice case raised national awareness about the number of domestic violence and sexual assault allegations and arrests swirling arout the league and its players. After considerable public pressure, Goodell rolled out revised league policies on Dec. 10, which included an automatic six-game suspension without pay for a host of conduct policy violations and the establishment of a league disciplinary officer.
“The policy is comprehensive,” Goodell said at its unveiling during a press conference in Dallas. “It is strong. It is tough. And it is better for everyone associated with the NFL.”
Meanwhile, Rice, who was cut by the Ravens when the footage-in-question went viral, is still waiting to be signed to a new NFL franchise. He told NBC's "TODAY" in December he was "horribly sorry" for all the pain her caused his family and fans.
“I took full responsibility for everything that I did, and the only thing I can hope for and wish for is a second chance,” Rice said.