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One of the darkest moments in NFL history may have never come to light if not for $91,000.
That’s how much the video footage of Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator was sold to TMZ for before being published on Sept. 8, 2014, a person with knowledge of the sale and the NFL’s investigation into the video told USA TODAY Sports. The person was not authorized to publicly speak because details of the league’s investigation remain private.
The release of the video set off a chain reaction, leading the Baltimore Ravens to release Rice, who would never again play in the NFL, and putting Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL under such intense scrutiny that former FBI Director Robert Mueller was hired to conduct an investigation into the league’s handling of the case. Call it the original Mueller report.
The release of the video also spurred action.
In the five years since the Rice video, the subject of domestic violence in the NFL has been front and center. The league has taken steps to address the issue, including stiffer penalties, player education, and donating more than $26 million over eight years to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Hotline CEO Katie Ray-Jones told USA TODAY Sports the non-profit saw an 80% increase in volume in the 24 hours after the footage went live and the number of calls and messages taken each day has never dipped to levels before the video surfaced.
“In one instant, people saw actual domestic violence looks like,” Ray-Jones said. “It started a discussion around the complexities of domestic violence, including victim blaming.”
But the NFL is still criticized for a domestic violence policy that is inconsistent, seeming to depend on the cooperation of the women allegedly abused or existence of irrefutable proof.
Ezekiel Elliott’s former girlfriend provided the NFL with text messages and photographs to corroborate her accusations, and the Dallas Cowboys running back was suspended for six games. Tyreek Hill was heard on an audio recording threatening the mother of his children, who he was convicted of abusing in 2014. But the Kansas City Chiefs receiver was not punished after the woman declined to speak with NFL investigators and prosecutors couldn’t determine who broke their 3-year-old son’s arm. NFL investigators, who interviewed family members, made efforts to obtain details of the incident from law enforcement, but were denied because the case involved a minor.
On Thursday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called on the league to do more to curb domestic violence among its players.
“It’s definitely one of the most important stories we’ve ever broken because it started a dialogue about domestic violence in America and how sports leagues like the NFL handle discipline when it comes to off-the-field issues,” Evan Rosenblum, an executive producer at TMZ Sports, told USA TODAY Sports. “And you know the video specifically was one of the first times you’ve seen a high-profile person, a beloved person, commit such a shocking act of violence a lot of people didn’t think was possible from Ray Rice.”
Mystery of the video
Although the damning video was made public in September 2014, the incident took place more than six months earlier.
Ray and Janay Rice were arrested early on Feb. 15, shortly after Valentine’s Day ended. Both initially faced misdemeanor domestic assault charges. (The charge against Janay was later dropped.) Four days later, TMZ published the first footage of the incident – Rice dragging an apparently unconscious Janay out of the elevator at the since-shuttered Revel Casino.
Rice, who had the initial charge upgraded to aggravated assault, was accepted into a diversion program in May that included two years of probation.
In June, he and Janay met with Goodell. One of Rice’s attorneys, Michael Diamondstein, obtained the video in April that showed the running back punching Janay Rice in the casino elevator, although NFL investigators did not ask for a copy, according to Mueller’s report.
Goodell ruled on July 24, suspending Rice for two games.
That could have been the end of the incident.
There were four entities that had access to the damning video: the Atlantic City Police, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, Rice’s legal team and employees of the Revel Casino.
The news media made several attempts to get the video from police and prosecutors and were denied citing exemptions in New Jersey’s open-records law. Rice’s legal team had nothing to gain by releasing video.
That left the Revel Casino, which was in the midst of its second bankruptcy filing.
Rodney Ruark, the lieutenant at the Atlantic Police Department who was in charge of the Rice investigation, said he was told by a Revel security official that a DVD he got from the casino was the only copy. Ruark told USA TODAY Sports he dropped off the video at the prosecutor’s office shortly after Rice’s arrest when his then-wife rang his cell phone.
“She said TMZ had just posted a video,” said Ruark, who is retired and runs an accounting firm. “It wasn’t the same video.”
It was the footage from outside the elevator that showed Rice dragging Janay.
“I told (the Revel security official) that the footage was not leaked by anyone at the police department because we didn’t even have that footage,” Ruark said. “If it didn’t come from the police, it had to have come from the Revel’s end.”
Mueller came to the same conclusion, and that the video acquired by TMZ was not the original and had been taken with a mobile phone.
“After the TMZ release, the Revel required that all cellphones be left outside the Security Operations monitoring room, installed cameras inside that room, and gave only supervisors access to downloads of video footage,” Mueller wrote.
The Atlantic County Prosecutors Office contemplated an investigation into whether a member of law enforcement – possibly moonlighting at the Revel – had leaked the footage, a person with knowledge of the matter told USA TODAY Sports. The person was granted anonymity because it was an internal matter.
“We made a thousand phone calls,” Rosenblum said. “And that’s how we ended up getting the first video and then we stuck around and kept working the story and kept making phone calls and staying on top of it and ultimately we came into possession of the second video.’’
The footage from inside the elevator was also damaging for Goodell.
Even before the release of the second video, the commissioner’s two-game ban of Rice was criticized for being grossly disproportionate. But after TMZ published the elevator video, he came in for withering criticism, with the National Organization for Women calling for Goodell’s resignation.
Two days after the second video’s release, on Sept. 10, The Associated Press reported a law-enforcement source sent a copy of the video to the NFL in April and that a league employee left a voicemail saying, “You’re right. It’s terrible.”
The Twitter hashtag #GoodellMustGo was trending just as the season was starting. UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy group, flew planes with banners that included the hashtag over some NFL stadiums, and started a petition calling for Goodell to step down.
“If these reports are true, Commissioner Goodell must go, for the good of the NFL and its fans,” Blumenthal said in a statement on Sept. 10. “The current leadership of the NFL cannot be trusted to fairly, genuinely implement policies that address domestic violence.”
Goodell conducted two interviews – with CBS This Morning and and USA TODAY Sports – the day after the footage was released. He held a news conference on Sept. 19, where Goodell appeared tentative and overwhelmed, unable to explain the NFL’s previous lackadaisical response to domestic violence or provide concrete details for how the league would do better going forward.
But some of the criticism of Goodell was based on potentially false information.
Goodell said the league did not have the video and did not see it until TMZ published it – a claim that Mueller confirmed four months later when he released the report detailing his investigation.
“After a review of all information gathered from the League, as well as information made available to us by third parties, we found no evidence that the in-elevator video was sent to the league or, if sent, was actually received or viewed by the league,” Mueller wrote.
Rob Maaddi, the AP reporter who wrote that the NFL had received the video in April, cited a law-enforcement official as his source, and said in interviews that he recognized the number on the source’s phone as one that belonged to the NFL’s New York headquarters. Maaddi also called the number to confirm it.
The AP never released the voicemail. Maaddi later told a league official that his source no longer had the cellphone or the voicemail, according to the Mueller report.
Mueller’s team interviewed league personnel, conducted forensic computer and mobile device searches and combed through more than 1,500 calls made to the NFL front office on April 9 – the day The Associated Press reported the unnamed league official left the voicemail. There were 1,494 pieces mail examined, none that could be traced back to a DVD of the Rice footage allegedly sent to the league office.
USA TODAY Sports provided the Associated Press with a list of questions related to Maaddi’s reporting, which went unanswered. Instead, spokesperson Lauren Easton pointed USA TODAY Sports to a statement issued after the Mueller investigation was made public.
“(The national conversation) lasted all of a year,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I’m not saying that our consciousness wasn’t raised. But like all things, it didn’t last long.
“It takes a horrific example, because that’s what it was, for us to say ‘Oh! What about domestic violence?’ Our work is to keep it in the forefront and keep it in the national conversation. We find ourselves struggling again.”
Contributing: Nancy Armour, Josh Peter