The NFL called in a former FBI director to examine how it pursued and handled evidence in the Ray Rice domestic violence case as pressure increased for the league to be more transparent about its original investigation.
The move late Wednesday came hours after The Associated Press reported that a law enforcement officer said he sent an NFL executive a video in April that showed Rice striking his then-fiancee at a casino. Goodell has maintained that no one in the NFL saw the video until it was released by TMZ Sports Monday.
Women's organizations, members of Congress and players have called for more detail about the NFL's handling of the Rice case. The criticism intensified after the law enforcement official's account.
Goodell turned to Robert S. Mueller III, who was the director of the FBI for 12 years, to lead the inquiry. The probe will be overseen by owners John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, two of Goodell's strongest supporters. Both are members of key NFL committees and have closely advised Goodell throughout his tenure.
The NFL called the probe independent, and did not discuss how the owners will work with Mueller. But there could be an appearance of conflict: Mara has already indicated he doesn't think Goodell's job should be in jeopardy.
“My understanding is that the league and the Ravens made repeated requests to obtain the video of the Ray Rice incident and were denied each time,” Mara said a few hours before the AP story broke. “The notion that the league should have gone around law enforcement to obtain the video is, in my opinion, misguided, as is the notion that the commissioner's job is now in jeopardy.”
The law firm where Mueller is now a partner, WilmerHale, has connections to the NFL. The firm has represented Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, and several former members of the firm have taken positions with NFL teams.
The law enforcement official who described sending the video to the NFL spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation is ongoing. He said he sent the tape five months ago, and played a 12-second voicemail from an NFL office number on April 9 confirming the video arrived. A female voice expresses thanks and says: “You're right. It's terrible.”
The official says he had no further communication with any NFL employee and can't confirm anyone watched the video. The person said he was unauthorized to release the video but shared it unsolicited, because he wanted the NFL to have it before deciding on Rice's punishment.
The NFL has said it asked for the video from law enforcement, but was denied.
The video shows Ravens running back Rice and Janay Palmer — now Janay Rice — shouting obscenities at each other, and she appears to spit at Rice right before he throws a brutal punch.
Rice had been charged with felony aggravated assault, but in May he was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that allowed him to avoid jail time. That could lead to the charge being purged from his record. He was cut from the Ravens and suspended by the league indefinitely on Monday after TMZ posted video of the punch.
Questions about the league's handling of the case have come from all over.
Sixteen female senators have called on the NFL to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence in a letter they wrote to Goodell on Thursday. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California put the letter together. It's signed by 14 Democrats and two Republicans.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a former member of the players' union executive committee, questioned the league's accountability. Brees compared it to the Saints' bounty program in which players, coaches and the general manager were suspended and the organization was fined.
“We're all held accountable for our actions as players,” he said. “Certainly every owner should be held accountable for their actions, the commissioner should be held accountable for his actions.”
The National Organization for Women said Goodell should resign and an independent committee should be appointed to suggest lasting reforms, and later said that the Mueller investigation was “not enough” and “just window dressing.”
Goodell has led the league through several controversies. While league revenues have grown to the $10 billion range, the NFL went through a four-month player lockout in 2011; a lockout of officials in 2012; the Saints' bounties; a bullying scandal on the Dolphins; and the Patriots spying on an opponent.
He's weathered those situations relatively well, in part because the owners certainly like seeing such profits, but also because of his leadership.
Under his watch, the NFL has clamped down on drug use and player misconduct. Goodell has not been afraid to discipline teams and owners for on- or off-field misconduct, as he did with heavy fines for the Patriots, Saints and, most recently, the Colts.
But the Rice case has shaken America's most popular sport, with fans talking more about domestic abuse than games. The Ravens play the rival Steelers in Baltimore Thursday night on national TV, but all the talk will be about the Rice case.
Despite the pressure, Goodell's job is secure, said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp and a confidant of many NFL owners.
“Roger Goodell is the best leader of any sports league on the planet today,” Ganis said. “The NFL that he runs is managed better than any sports league — ever. The people that know this best are those who pay his contract, the owners.