NFL on the Defensive: What Your Organization Can Learn From the Rice Incident.

September 11, 2014

Right now the National Football League is “on trial.” We aren’t talking about your typical trial before a judge and jury. This is a trial of the worst kind – a trial by media. With about half of Americans admitting they are fans of professional football, this is a trial that America is watching.

Whether you are in the private sector, public sector, for profit or non-profit, you too should pay attention. Why? Because some day your organization will need to conduct an internal investigation. It may arise out of a sexual harassment claim, an allegation of employee theft, or an anonymous threat of violence. Regardless of the issue, the underlying investigation is critical. Why? Because if the underlying investigation is botched, then every single decision made based on that botched investigation will be tainted. This is the problem the NFL is facing today.

Yes, I am talking about the Rice Incident (who isn’t talking about the Rice Incident?) But for those of you who don’t know, here is some background: On February 15, Ray Rice, a player for the Baltimore Ravens, and his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, got into an altercation on an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. Shortly thereafter, a casino surveillance video was made public. The video did not show what happened inside the elevator, rather, it only showed Rice dragging Palmer’s unconscious body from the elevator. The NFL, having viewed the video, issued Rice a two-game suspension for the incident. Fast forward to Monday, September 8, when a second casino surveillance video was posted on-line by a media organization. This video, taken from inside the elevator, clearly shows Rice punching Palmer in the head, knocking her out cold, and then dragging her body. The NFL immediately suspended Rice indefinitely.

Now the NFL has some very tough questions to answer about its investigation and the decisions made based on that investigation. Did it know about a second video? Did it try to get the second video? Did it ever contact the casino for other videos or interview its staff? Did it contact the Atlantic City police department for information? Did it interview Rice or Palmer about the incident? Why did it now change its punishment from a two-game suspension to an indefinite suspension?

Yesterday, the NFL announced it had engaged former FBI Director Robert Mueller to conduct a review of the League’s “pursuit and handling of evidence” of the incident. There is no doubt that Mueller will scrutinize every part of the investigation and “Monday morning quarterback” every single decision made by NFL based on that investigation.

Bottom line: A thorough investigation into allegations of misconduct within your organization is critical. Work with your legal counsel to ensure you have not disregarded what could be deemed later as important evidence. When a judge, jury, or the media is later scrutinizing your investigation, you want to be confident you can defend both the investigation and the decisions made based on that investigation. You only have one opportunity to do it right! As Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, would probably tell you, it is no fun being on the defensive end of an investigation.

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