Robert Mueller report brings closure but doesn't erase stain

The NFL's long, miserable season of entanglement with Ray Rice finally ended Thursday, with an internal investigation that offered the news the NFL had most been hoping for: no news.

Robert Mueller, the former longtime FBI director who conducted the investigation that the league office had hoped would wrap up much sooner, found that the NFL's own investigation into Rice's domestic violence case was flawed by its failure to push harder to obtain important information. Crucially, Mueller also cleared Commissioner Roger Goodell of suspicion that he had lied about having obtained or seen the graphic video of Rice punching his then-fiancée in a casino elevator early last year.

That was, in truth, the only news that would have mattered to the NFL from this report -- if Mueller had found that Goodell had lied to owners about what he had known. There are surely those who will doubt that Mueller looked hard enough. There might even be some who think Mueller covered up for the league that brought him in. And there will certainly be plenty who think the league deserved more than the soft slap on the wrist it received from Mueller.

But after months of waiting for this report, it was clear that neither the league, New York Giants president John Mara nor Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II had any control over Mueller. They did not know when the report would be completed -- the league had hoped it would be done much earlier -- and Mara and Rooney acted only as facilitators when Mueller needed contacts or documents. They were not being told, Mueller said, about what he was finding along the way. The end result: The league is tarnished, as Mara and Rooney said in a statement. But Goodell's job is safe, and now the NFL will move on, perhaps chastened by the entire embarrassing episode, and with a new personal conduct policy and investigative protocol in place.

Mueller put much of the blame for the failures of the Rice case at the feet of an NFL system that deferred to law enforcement in its investigations. The report said there was enough information available about the incident aside from the elevator video that the NFL should have done more to get additional information, and it should have done more with the information it had. In other words, the NFL should have known what that video showed, even before the video became public.

But in its most critical finding, the report said no evidence could be found -- after every woman who was working in the league office at the time was interviewed, after millions of emails, documents and texts were examined, after the commissioner's phone records were inspected -- that anybody in the league had received the elevator tape in April, as an Associated Press report from September had stated, or that a woman had called anyone from a league number to acknowledge that the tape had been received, which the report also asserted.

Mueller noted, correctly, that The Associated Press could not reveal its sources. But the Baltimore Ravens had no such privilege, and the report was clear that the Ravens -- who had been told what the video portrayed -- did not volunteer what they knew about the video. The NFL may not have pressed hard enough to obtain it, but the Ravens have largely escaped blame for the mishandling of Rice. The fact that they allowed the league to look negligent when they could have volunteered info they must have known the NFL would want displays an uncomfortable willingness by the team to protect a favorite player at the expense of the league's reputation and spark an entire season of controversy.

Still, even Mueller's report doesn't absolve Goodell and his top advisers from the stain that will linger on them: that, at the critical moment, they were terribly out of touch with how damaging domestic violence is, and how important it is to punish players who commit such acts. That they were more concerned with precedent in punishments than with what was proper. That they didn't take this entire situation seriously enough until they were told by the public they had to.

That has been the biggest disappointment of the entire episode. To those who know him well -- the owners -- it never seemed likely that Goodell had lied to them. But until the Rice episode, it had seemed likely that Goodell and his advisers would be smarter and more intuitive about the cracks in the league's moral foundation caused by a steady stream of domestic violence cases. They know about those cracks now. And now that Mueller has mostly cleared the league of serious blame, they have to get back to work repairing them.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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