When is an independent investigation not really independent? It depends.
Actually, it doesn’t. True independence includes both the ability and willingness to ask questions and to make decisions unfettered by any concern other than getting to the truth.
For investigations that are aimed at securing the confidence of the public at large, the appearance of independence also becomes critical.
Commissioner Roger Goodell blurred those lines while defending on Friday the decision to ask former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice case. Whether Mueller actually behaves independent of any concern other than getting to the truth will be impossible to prove without getting inside his mind. While his extensive service as FBI director provides a patina of credibility, plenty of people who have held plenty of big titles have succumbed to human nature or other factors that result in the person straying from the goal of doing the right thing in every situation and circumstance.
The bigger question is the appearance of independence. The selection of an employee of a law firm with multiple tentacles to the NFL prevents the investigation from having the appearance that it will indeed be independent.
“The law firm that he works for is a law firm with extremely close ties to the NFL,” CNN’s Rachel Nichols said to Goodell. “You guys paid that law firm to help you negotiate some television deals. The president of the Ravens, who will be key in this whole investigation, worked at that law firm for more than 30 years. Why hire someone with even the appearance of impropriety and how do you expect us to accept everything?”
“I respectfully disagree,” Goodell said. “You are questioning the integrity of the director of the FBI. Yes, that firm has represented us in the past. They have also been on the other side in litigation against the NFL. So this is a highly respected individual, the longest serving director in the FBI.”
Nichols wasn’t satisfied. (J. Edgar Hoover probably wasn’t, either.)
“Part of the idea of this is to restore public trust,” she said. “So even if he does a flawless investigation isn’t there an element here of your leaving the door open for doubt?”
“Well, Rachel, unfortunately we live in a world where there is a lot of litigation,” Goodell said. “A lot of law firms and maybe people have had some interaction with us in the past. Robert Mueller has not. The law firm may have. We are hiring Robert Mueller, his credentials to do an independent investigation reporting to the owners and I’m confident that will be the case.”
But there are thousands of law firms and thousands of lawyers capable of doing a fair and impartial investigation. Mueller’s appointment gives the investigation credibility on the surface, because he ran the FBI. The failure to pick a lawyer from a firm with no past connection and, most importantly, no aspiration for any future connection to the NFL prevents the investigation from having the appearance of independence.
Ultimately, the decision to pick Mueller was just another mistake in the chain of blunders that has turned the NFL on its head. At a time when it’s become very popular for people connected to the NFL to talk about getting it right, how about we stop saying it and start doing it?