NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Seattle at an event showcasing NFL Now, the league's next-generation video service, which will provide a personalized stream of video from the digital library of NFL football video through apps and browsers on a variety of devices. (AP Photo/)
Can Goodell survive Rice controversy?
04:45 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Who knew what -- who saw what, and who said what -- when?

Video shows Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a casino elevator

A report suggests NFL may have had that video, among other questions on its probe

They include whether Rice admitted in June that he'd punched his then-fiancee

CNN  — 

Did NFL executives see video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee inside a casino elevator?

Perhaps as critically: Did they even need to?

In recent days, serious questions have been raised about what the pro football league knew concerning the February 15 incident at the now-shuttered Revel hotel and casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. What happened in an elevator at the Revel came five months before Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two games, and well before TMZ posted video showing the Baltimore Ravens running back delivering a ferocious punch to the face of Janay Palmer.

In a letter to NFL executives this week, Goodell insisted, “We did not see the video of what took place inside the elevator until it was publicly released Monday.”

That footage shows Palmer – Rice’s then-fiancee and now-wife – rushing at Rice inside the elevator. He responds with a left hook to her face. Palmer is then seen face-first on the ground, apparently unconscious as the doors open and she’s dragged by Rice – who doesn’t show obvious emotion in the footage – into a hallway before others eventually tend to her.

The video is powerful, visceral. Then again, so is the description alone of what happened.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen laid out a very similar scenario on his network’s “Dari and Mel” radio show in late July, shortly after Rice’s initial two-day suspension was doled out. He cited sources talking to him about a video from inside the Revel elevator, one that Mortensen reported showed Palmer “attacking Ray,” then him delivering “a punch.”

Mortensen has since tweeted that the “Ray Rice video was not made available to” NFL executives. That doesn’t mean those executives might not have known exactly what happened, though, before Rice got his two-game suspension – one that became indefinite after the so-called knockout video came out.

That includes Goodell. According to ESPN, he learned about the crushing blow from none other than Ray Rice himself.

Four sources told the network’s “Outside the Lines” program that, during a June 16 meeting, Rice told the commissioner he punched his then-fiancee inside the elevator.

“(Rice) told the full truth to Goodell – he made it clear he had hit her,” a source with knowledge of the meeting said, according to ESPN. “And he told Goodell he was sorry and that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Goodell recently told CBS that this second video was “inconsistent” with what Rice told him.

Yet while not commenting specifically about that meeting, broadcaster Craig Carton told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday that Rice, his friend, has always been honest about what he did, including to league and team executives.

“He told everyone that asked, that was in a position of authority – from the NFL to his bosses with the Ravens – what he did,” said Carton, a co-host on WFAN’s “Boomer and Carton” radio show. “He took ownership of the despicable act.”

Carton, who said he exchanged texts with Rice earlier Thursday, said his friend “knows he has a lot of work to do to repair his image to a lot of people, he has let a lot of people down (especially) his wife and his daughter.” But Carton thinks NFL executives have a lot of explaining and repair to do as well.

“Ray Rice did something horrendously wrong,” Carton said. “But the NFL’s reaction to it – and how they’ve kind of vacillated back-and-forth on what the suspension should be, what they do know, what they don’t know – has really become almost comical at this point. (It) has become Keystone Cops.”

Ravens owner: ‘Tendency to … see what we want to see’

Rice’s NFL season had been over a month and a half by that winter night, when he and Palmer sauntered into a Revel casino elevator as two women pass by.

The video posted by TMZ doesn’t have audio, but it does have images showing Palmer standing in a corner. Then, quickly, there’s the altercation that ends with a knockout blow.

This footage became public seven months after TMZ’s initial video, posted days after the incident, of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator and depositing her face-first on the ground. Rice goes back in the elevator to get her shoes, but doesn’t seem to tend to his ailing then-fiancee.

Police eventually responded to the scene, filing summons for both Rice and Palmer for “assault by attempting to cause bodily injury.” The case against Palmer was dismissed, but not against Rice – who, according to the complaint, struck Palmer “with his hand, rendering her unconscious.”

That was authorities’ assessment.

A grand jury concurred in March, indicting Rice on a felony charge of aggravated assault. The three-time Pro Bowler pleaded not guilty, before entering a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders that could clear him of the charges if he successfully completes the requirements.

Rice also apologized publicly in March to the Ravens and his fans. So did Palmer, who – addressing reporters alongside the man who had punched her weeks earlier and who she had just married – said, “I do deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night.”

Meanwhile, Rice got his team’s support. Head coach John Harbaugh told reporters, “I stand behind Ray, he’s a heckuva guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He’s going to have to pay a consequences.”

Speaking more recently, after both videos came out, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti suggested that the team’s perception of Rice may have tainted its take on what happened that night.

“We love Ray, so we have a tendency to hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see,” Bisciotti told CNN affiliate WBAL. “And so … the explanation that she hit him, he hit her with an open hand … that she was aggressive: I was picturing her wailing on him and him smacking her, and maybe her head was this far from the wall.”

That may have been Ravens’ executives view but, in the NFL, that’s largely irrelevant to punishment. Goodell has demonstrated time and again that he’s the one who doles out discipline for players’ off-field transgressions, that it’s his job to judge right from wrong and do what’s necessary to protect the league’s image.

And so, NFL executives looked into it.

Five months after Palmer was knocked out, two months after the court proceeding that paved Rice’s way into the pretrial intervention program, Goodell rendered his decision of the two-game suspension.

“The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game,” the commissioner said in a letter to Rice, which was posted on the NFL’s website. “…I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career.”

Report: Incriminating video received at NFL office

By that July 24 announcement, presumably, the NFL had finished its investigation. It had gotten hold of what it deemed to be the key facts and had talked to the key players, Rice included.

And, after all this, what did the league – and Goodell, especially – know beyond what was by then in the public realm?

The first TMZ video to post, showing Rice dragging Palmer from the elevator, had been out for months by then. Yet the NFL never explained exactly what led to the altercation or how Palmer was knocked out; nor did Rice in his March press conference.

Two things could help clarify those details: the second video showing the punch and the words of the two people involved in the altercation, Rice and Palmer.

Right now, it’s not clear if anyone – or at least anyone high-ranking, most of all Goodell – saw that latter footage before Monday.

The Associated Press reported this week that a law enforcement official said he sent that video to NFL offices, and that a woman there confirmed its receipt and that what was shown on the video was “terrible.”

What that report, and others, haven’t said is if any top NFL executives viewed the video or did anything with it.

NFL looking into report league exec saw Rice video in April

Goodell told CBS that league executives never had it. They assumed there was video from inside the elevator and asked to see it, “but we were never granted that opportunity.”

The commissioner did, by his own admission, sit down with Rice. According to the ESPN “Outside the Lines” report, they were not alone: Palmer as well as two player’s union representatives, the Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and team president Dick Cass were there as well.

No ambiguity … or there was … maybe

That ESPN report cites one source with knowledge of the meeting saying that Rice admitted he “slapped” his then-fiancee. Four other sources, though, say he admitted punching her.

One of those latter sources said, “There was no ambiguity about what happened.”

That’s not what Goodell said.

In his CBS interview, the commissioner said, “When we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened.”

Absent a recording from that June meeting, without extensive on-the-record accounts from all those in the room, figuring out exactly what was said and how it was interpreted is difficult if not impossible. It’s possible that Janay Palmer deflected some blame from Rice.

“Put yourself in Janay’s shoes,” said CNN legal analyst Mel Robbins. “You’re really going to go into a meeting with the commissioner of the NFL (and) your husband … and say, ‘Yeah, he’s 100% responsible, he cold-cocked me across the face, he pushed me around like a piece of luggage on the floor’? No way. She doesn’t want to be responsible for him losing his career.”

This and other aspects of the NFL’s investigation are now being examined. The league has tapped former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead an independent inquiry into the league’s internal probe and how it gathered evidence in the case.

Will that get to the bottom of what league executives actually knew and didn’t know?

Will it cast judgment on whether the NFL’s tactics – like having Palmer state her case sitting next to the man who punched her – were appropriate?

Will it determine if league executives, especially Goodell, have told the full truth throughout this process?

Not everyone is convinced it’ll be effective.

Part of it has to do with the fact that two NFL owners who are attorneys – the New York Giants’ John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney II – will oversee Mueller’s investigation. And the National Organization for Women called Mueller’s appointment “just window dressing,” saying it doesn’t go far enough.

Will we ever get the truth? Will anyone besides Rice face consequences, including Goodell, who some people including NOW President Terry O’Neill, think should lose his job?

Unfortunately, as with the complete story about what happened at the Revel casino in Atlantic City on February 15 – and what has happened since in NFL executive offices and meeting rooms – we may never get full answers.