The Mueller Whitewash

The shadow of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is cast on the NFL logo background as he pauses before answering a question from
The shadow of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is cast on the NFL logo background as he pauses before answering a question from the media during a news conference at the annual NFL football meetings at the Arizona Biltmore, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As early as the 16th century, barns were sometimes covered with a white paint-like substance made of chalked lime to cover weathering and discoloration. It was called a "white wash." By the 19th century, the term began to be applied in a political context. An editorial in the Philadelphia Aurora in 1800 cautioned the Federalists: "if you do not whitewash President Adams speedily, the Democrats, like swarms of flies, will bespatter him all over, and make you both as speckled as a dirty wall, and as black as the devil." Since then the term has expanded in use to cover almost any maneuver that would hide private blemishes from the public view. Now it can be applied to the business of sports.

The National Football League hired the former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the League's Ray Rice contretemps. Mueller and his firm are associated with the NFL, and, as a result, few bought the League's claim that the investigation would be totally "independent." Now the Mueller report has been issued and -- no surprise here -- the NFL's commissioner seems to have been telling the truth. Mueller could not substantiate the claim that the NFL offices were offered the incriminating Rice inside-the-elevator tape before the commissioner administered his initial two-game suspension.

As any good lawyer should have learned in law school, the way you ask a question will determine what answers you receive. If you are able to ask a hostile witness whether he is "still beating his wife," nothing he says in his own defense will matter. (If he denies he is still beating his wife, it implies that he did so in the past. If he admits to continuing the domestic abuse, then his goose is cooked. In either case, his domestic abuse will be clear for all to see.)

It seems that the primary question Mr. Mueller et al. was asked to examine was whether Commissioner Goodell lied to the public when he said he had not seen the inside-the-elevator tape. That was the perfect question to ask. That is the headline the media have used reporting on the conclusion Mueller reached: Our commissioner is not a liar.

Of course, Roger Goodell is not a liar. He is a very successful businessman surrounded by a cadre of advisers. The real news of the Mueller report -- although it receives lesser billing in the press -- is the incompetence of the initial investigation of the Rice incident. The NFL should have obtained all the data before it acted and, if it had done so, the tape would have been made available. As Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes explain in Scandal in Bohemia: "It is a capital error to theorize in the absence of data."

The Rice story has run its course as the NFL bathes in glory during its "second season." The playoffs are magnetic, and they can even make us forget for a few moments about the concussions and the domestic violence. The NFL clubs have taken the offensive in making domestic violence "their" issue, with high production value public service announcements using the stars of the game. While it does come somewhat late in the game, it is welcomed. A few touchdowns in the fourth quarter never hurts.

The clubs will have the opportunity to exercise their new commitment to domestic tranquility in the upcoming draft starting on April 30. Prominent on the list of potential draftees are a few young men whose conduct in college might raise some serious concerns about their potential off-field behavior as pros. Although he does not stand alone, Jameis Winston is the prime example of potential trouble. Will the Tampa Bay Bucs use the first pick in the draft to take Winston? If the club does, might Robert Mueller have time to write a report later explaining to the suffering Tampa Bay fans why it squandered that first pick?