NFL hires former FBI director in Rice case

Investigation to examine league’s handling of evidence in domestic-violence inquiry

US football player Ray Rice: video showed him knocking fiancée unconscious with a blow to the head and dragging her out of a lift. Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters

US football player Ray Rice: video showed him knocking fiancée unconscious with a blow to the head and dragging her out of a lift. Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters

 

The National Football League (NFL), the professional body governing American Football, has hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate how it handled evidence during a domestic-violence investigation into an assault by Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice on his future wife earlier this year.

The organisation bowed to mounting pressure and growing public uproar over the league’s investigation into the February incident in which Rice knocked his wife out in an Atlantic City casino lift.

Mr Mueller was appointed to oversee an independent inquiry into whether the sports body chose to ignore evidence when it initially handed down a lenient two-game suspension as Rice’s punishment.

The Baltimore Ravens fired Rice, a one-time Superbowl winner, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely on Monday after footage of the incident showing Rice knocking his partner out in the lift was released on news website TMZ, revealing the disturbing nature of domestic violence in graphic detail to a shocked American public.

The NFL announced the independent investigation hours after an Associated Press (AP) news report contradicted the league’s response to the release of the video that nobody in the organisation had seen the footage until it was released online on Monday.

‘You’re right – it’s terrible’

The law-enforcement official told AP he was not authorised to release the video to the NFL but wanted to share it with the league before it decided on Rice’s punishment over the incident. He was unaware whether anyone at the NFL had watched the video.

In response to the AP report, the NFL repeated its earlier assertion that no one at the league had seen the video before Monday.

Embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has come under increasing pressure over the league’s handling of the controversy in which his critics have pointed out that the NFL has responded more punitively to marijuana use by players than domestic violence. He has resisted calls to resign from various quarters, from Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp to well-known sports commentator Keith Olbermann.

“The NFL has lost its way,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organisation for Women, who called on Goodell to resign over his mishandling of the NFL’s policy on domestic violence. “It doesn’t have a Ray Rice problem: it has a violence against women problem.”

Another women’s rights organisation, UltraViolent, echoed these comments. The group’s co-founder, Shaunna Thomas, said: “We believe it’s time for the NFL, as a cultural force and league of role models, to make drastic changes to address a culture of ambivalence towards violence against women.”

Twelve Democratic members of Congress on the House of Representatives judiciary committee wrote to Goodell demanding “the highest level of transparency” around the NFL’s investigation of the Rice domestic violence incident and asking the commissioner to reveal more about the league’s efforts to get hold of the assault footage.

More severe penalties

Mr Mueller will be supported in his investigation by the owners of two of the league’s teams, John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, son of Dan Rooney, the former US ambassador to Ireland.

The NFL has said that the inquiry would have access to all its records and the full co-operation of its staff.

The video sparked a wave of public indignation at the horrific level of violence as the grainy, security-camera footage of Rice knocking his fiancée out with a blow to the head and dragging her unconscious body out of the lift has been repeatedly broadcast on American television news channels since it first appeared online at the start of the week.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported an 84 per cent increase in phone calls in the two days after the video was leaked as the footage encouraged other victims of domestic violence to speak out.

“We had an outpouring of women saying: ‘Oh my god, I didn’t realise this happened to other people.’ They thought they were living a life that was unique to them,” the hotline’s chief executive, Katie Ray-Jones, told the Huffington Post.

“One woman called in who is married to a [martial arts] fighter. She said: ‘I just saw the video and I know my husband could do worse, and I need help.’”