NFL appoints special counsel to investigate Dolphins situation

The investigation involving the Miami Dolphins has suddenly taken on a more official, and ominous, feel.

The NFL has announced that Commissioner Roger Goodell has appointed lawyer Ted Wells to direct an independent investigation regarding “issues of workplace conduct” in Miami.

“Ted Wells will independently direct the investigation and submit a report to me,” Commissioner Goodell said in a league-issued release.  “Mr. Wells will conduct a thorough and objective investigation.  He will ensure that we have all the facts so that we can address this matter constructively.  We have worked previously with Paul Weiss and have great respect for the firm.  Ted Wells will have full authority to investigate as he deems appropriate.  He is on the job as of today and will undertake to complete his work as promptly as possible.  Consistent with doing a thorough investigation, we have not imposed a specific timetable on him.”

The investigation originally had been delegated to NFL senior V.P. of labor law and policy Adolpho Birch.  It’s unclear why the change was made.

It seems fair to infer that the NFL has opted for an independent investigation based on both the gravity of the situation and the lessons learned from last year’s bounty investigation involving the Saints, which seemed to be tainted at times by an effort not to get to the truth but to craft a version of the truth that meshed with a predetermined outcome.

Eventually, a supposedly independent lawyer was hired to review the evidence compiled by the league.  But Mary Jo White (who now serves as chairperson of the Securities and Exchange Commission) ultimately came off not as an independent evaluator of the facts, but as an advocate for the conclusions the league already had reached.

Time will tell whether Ted Wells is truly independent, or whether his stated independence will be exercised in a way that helps the investigation reach a desired outcome.  Regardless, here’s hoping that any decision to impose discipline on coaches, executives, players, and/or other employees of the Dolphins takes into account the possibility that the actions that led to the departure of tackle Jonathan Martin from the team and the suspension of guard Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team will take into account whether the behavior constitutes an isolated incident or a reflection of broader cultural issues in the NFL locker room.

If it’s the latter, throwing the book at the Dolphins probably isn’t the fairest way to go.

Then again, the steps the NFL currently is taking to create a patina (hey now, college boy) of objectivity and independence will make it easier for the league to beat back any legal challenges that would block Goodell from both making the decisions as to discipline and serving as the hearing officer for any appeals.  In the bounty case, extended litigation resulted in Goodell relinquishing his authority over suspended players to former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who overturned all suspensions.

Pardon our cynicism, but the memories of the bounty scandal are still too fresh to prevent us from ruling out the possibility that the appointment of an outside lawyer in the first instance is aimed at least in part at allowing the league to do what it wants to do without ever having to yield to any outside oversight.

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