Rice case: purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL

RiceRob Carr/Getty Images

The seven-month scandal that is threatening Roger Goodell's future as NFL commissioner began with an unexpected phone call in the early morning hours on a Saturday in February.

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens' director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video -- shot from inside the elevator where Rice's punch knocked his fiancée unconscious -- the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.

Sanders quickly relayed the damning video's play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL's 94-year history.

"Outside the Lines" interviewed more than 20 sources over the past 11 days -- team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice -- and found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.

After the Feb. 15 incident in the casino elevator, Ravens executives -- in particular owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome -- began extensive public and private campaigns pushing for leniency for Rice on several fronts: from the judicial system in Atlantic County, where Rice faced assault charges, to commissioner Goodell, who ultimately would decide the number of games Rice would be suspended from this fall, to within their own building, where some were arguing immediately after the incident that Rice should be released.

The Ravens also consulted frequently with Rice's Philadelphia defense attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein, who in early April had obtained a copy of the inside-elevator video and told Cass: "It's f---ing horrible." Cass did not request a copy of the video from Diamondstein but instead began urging Rice's legal team to get Rice accepted into a pretrial intervention program after being told some of the program's benefits. Among them: It would keep the inside-elevator video from becoming public.

For its part, the NFL -- which in other player discipline cases has been able to obtain information that's been sealed by court order -- took an uncharacteristically passive approach when it came to gathering evidence, opening itself up to widespread criticism, allegations of inconsistent approaches to player discipline and questions about whether Goodell gave Rice -- the corporate face of the Baltimore franchise -- a light punishment as a favor to his good friend Bisciotti. Four sources said Ravens executives, including Bisciotti, Cass and Newsome, urged Goodell and other league executives to give Rice no more than a two-game suspension, and that's what Goodell did on July 24.

Most sources spoke with "Outside the Lines" on the condition of anonymity, citing the NFL's just-launched, self-described independent investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI chief, which is being overseen by John Mara, the New York Giants' owner, and Art Rooney II, the Pittsburgh Steelers' co-owner. Mara and Rooney are close confidants of Goodell's. The interviews, viewed together, paint a picture of a league and a franchise whose actions -- and inaction -- combined to conceal -- or ignore -- the graphic violence of Rice's assault. When evidence of it surfaced anyway, the NFL and the Ravens quickly shifted gears and simultaneously attempted to pin the blame on Rice and his alleged lack of truthfulness with Goodell about what had happened inside the elevator.

Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, on Friday afternoon did not answer any written questions submitted to Goodell and the league by "Outside the Lines." "Mr. Mueller is in the process of conducting his investigation into the pursuit and handling of evidence in the Ray Rice domestic violence incident," Aiello said. "His report will be made public." He declined further comment. The Ravens responded to various questions Friday and disputed "Outside the Lines'" reporting, saying it was not their initial understanding Rice had knocked out Janay "with a punch." As for Cass working with Diamondstein, the Ravens said Cass made it clear that "Ray and his lawyer should proceed based on their assessment of what was in Ray's best interests." The team declined to make Sanders available, saying he was traveling.

Later Friday, the Ravens released the following statement to the general media: "The ESPN.com 'Outside the Lines' article contains numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings. The Ravens will address all of these next week in Baltimore after our trip to Cleveland for Sunday's game against the Browns."

The Rices, through their friends, declined to comment, as did Diamondstein.

One of the most confounding aspects about the Rice scandal centers around hard-to-reconcile questions: Why did Roger Goodell, the NFL's strong leader who for eight years as commissioner has been so committed to player discipline, not immediately follow his often-stated moral compass when he learned -- verbally or visually -- of Rice's attack? And why did his multibillion-dollar corporation, with its vast national network of former FBI agents and law enforcement officials, flat-out fail in the most basic of investigatory tactics: to obtain the inside-elevator surveillance video, as Goodell has claimed. The public, league sponsors and media have been trying to make sense of the commissioner's motives during a league investigation unlike any other.

February

The evening began innocently enough. Rice, 27, and 26-year-old Janay celebrated Valentine's Day at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City with two other couples, close friends who were a regular part of their social circle. They had dinner and wine, then went to the casino's main bar, The Social, where they split at least one bottle of Patron Tequila, Rice's favorite liquor. By 2 a.m., Ray and Janay were intoxicated and heatedly arguing as he followed her into a hotel elevator. According to two sources, the couple fought about the guest list for their upcoming wedding as well as text messages Rice had received that night from a young woman, a Ravens employee.

Bisciotti and Cass contend that, after the elevator doors closed that morning, they did not have a full picture of what happened until September. "It was our understanding based on Ray's account that in the course of a physical altercation between the two of them he slapped Janay with an open hand, and that she hit her head against the elevator rail or wall as she fell to the ground," the Ravens said in a statement Friday afternoon. But sources both affiliated and unaffiliated with the team tell "Outside the Lines" a different story: The Ravens' head of security, Sanders, heard a detailed description of the inside-elevator scene within hours and shared it with Ravens officials in Baltimore.

Goodell has been steadfast that no one in the NFL had seen the inside-elevator video until Sept. 8, the same day the public did. Both the team and the league presumably had a copy of the police report: Ray and Janay were arrested shortly before 3 a.m. on Feb. 15 and charged with simple assault. Rice was accused of "assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious, at the Revel Casino," the police report says. (Janay's charges would later be dropped.)

But within hours of the elevator attack, an employee of the Ravens was describing the inside-elevator video to friends in graphic detail, telling confidants that Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a punch and that the video was "really bad," according to a source close to a Ravens official.

"I was told, 'It has to get better for Ray Rice, or he's going to get cut,' " the source said.

Sanders relayed the information he had obtained on Feb. 15 to his bosses, but whether he spoke directly with Bisciotti or Cass or someone else who relayed the information remains unclear. Four days after the incident, TMZ Sports released a different surveillance video, shot from outside of the elevator, showing Rice impassively dragging Janay's unconscious body out of the elevator. Although the grainy video did not show what had happened behind the elevator's doors, the images horrified Ravens coach John Harbaugh, according to four sources inside and outside the organization. The Super Bowl-winning coach urged his bosses to release Rice immediately, especially if the team had evidence Rice had thrown a punch. That opinion was shared by George Kokinis, the Baltimore director of player personnel, according to a fifth source outside the organization but familiar with the team's thinking.

But Harbaugh's recommendation to cut the six-year veteran running back was quickly rejected by Ravens management: owner Bisciotti, team president Cass and GM Newsome.

To understand why Ravens executives rushed to defend Rice, who had his worst year as a pro in 2013 with an average of 3.1 yards per carry, one needs to consider how important he had become to the franchise in general and, in particular, to Bisciotti.

No player did more for the community than Rice, and no player on the team embraced the city of Baltimore the way he did. Rice named his daughter, Rayven, after the team's nickname. He had the "Baltimore" tattooed on his forearms. He became friends with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, appearing with her regularly at charity events. He raised millions for sick children, urged the state legislature in Annapolis to pass anti-bullying laws and hosted a football camp for hundreds of disadvantaged kids each year. He even dressed up as Santa Claus at an event hosted by the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for victims of domestic violence. During the week before the Super Bowl this year, two weeks before the incident, Rice appeared on an anti-bullying panel. Perhaps most visibly, Rice was the longtime spokesman for M&T Bank, one of the team's main sponsors and one that has its name on the Ravens' stadium. Practically every time Bisciotti asked Rice to make an appearance on behalf of the team, he'd say yes.

"We kind of heard what we wanted to hear and imagined what we wanted to imagine because we loved Ray," Bisciotti told The Baltimore Sun last week about the team's initial reaction to the Rice incident.

Despite whatever private objections Harbaugh might have had, he was soon toeing the company line in public, selling the team's decision to support Rice to the media. He said he felt the facts should determine the consequences, a phrase he used repeatedly. "There are a lot of facts and a process that has to be worked through in anything like this," Harbaugh told reporters Feb. 21. "There are a lot of question marks. But Ray's character -- you guys know his character -- so you start with that."

The day after the incident in Atlantic City, Rice met Kyle Jakobe, his personal trainer and one of his closest friends, at Jakobe's gym, Sweat Performance, in Timonium, Maryland. In Jakobe's office, Rice wept as he described what happened between him and his future wife. "I'm holding him, he's crying, he's devastated," Jakobe said. According to Jakobe, Rice didn't sugarcoat what happened. The running back told his friend much of what we now know: Rice struck Janay in the face with his left fist and sent her careening into the elevator wall, where she struck her head and was knocked out instantly. "He motioned it to me," Jakobe said, making a closed fist and bringing it across his body. "He was like 'Hey, this is what happened.'"

Rice also leveled with his general manager, Newsome, who had a Hall of Fame career as a tight end with the Cleveland Browns. Rice sat down with Harbaugh, as well, and Harbaugh later described their conversation in a June interview with ESPN The Magazine. "I talked to Ray right away," Harbaugh said, "and what he told me right away -- we always tell our guys, 'Never lie, never cheat, never steal' -- he told me the exact truth of what happened, and it held up all the way through. He didn't sugarcoat it, he admitted what he did wrong, he explained everything to a T. Everything I've heard since then is held up to what he said."

Rice needed a criminal defense lawyer -- a good one -- and, through a referral from a Baltimore lawyer, he hired Diamondstein, a fiery Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer, on Monday, Feb. 17. Diamondstein began a series of conversations with Cass, a lawyer as well as the Ravens team president, about strategy on how to resolve Rice's criminal case as quickly, and as quietly, as possible, team sources and other sources say.

Diamondstein received his marching orders from Rice: "Keep me out of jail, and keep my bosses happy." By midday Wednesday, Feb. 19, the lawyer had worked out a plea deal with a local prosecutor in Atlantic City municipal court: Rice would enter counseling and if there were no other incidents involving him within 90 days, the case would be dismissed. The inside-elevator surveillance video would not be released. But that was the day TMZ released the outside-elevator video.

Everything changed.

Before the plea deal could be finalized, the Atlantic County prosecutor, James P. McClain, decided to take the Rice case from the lower, municipal court and present evidence -- all of the surveillance videos -- to a grand jury. Diamondstein was back to square one and would have to seek a deal from a new prosecutor, one who initially seemed in no mood to negotiate.

The grand jury process would take weeks.

March

In his letter to Ravens stakeholders last week, Bisciotti said that, by the end of February, "this is what we knew: A player who had been a model citizen in the community and terrific teammate for six seasons had been charged with simple assault against his [fiancée] ... Ray and Janay both told us nothing like this had happened before. He was showing great remorse; they were meeting regularly with our team chaplain and were diligently attending couples counseling."

For his part, Harbaugh said, given what he knew, he was also satisfied with Rice's account of the incident: "Ray has told me his side of it," Harbaugh said on March 5, "and everything we've seen so far is very consistent with what he said."

But after Ravens offensive lineman Jah Reid was arrested March 8 in Key West, Florida, and charged with two counts of battery for his role in a bar fight, Harbaugh, according to several sources, again went to Newsome and advocated that the three Ravens players arrested in the offseason -- Rice, Reid and wide receiver Deonte Thompson -- be released. Newsome, according to what Rice was told, bristled at the recommendation, saying he was the decision-maker in the matter, not Harbaugh, and he believed in second chances. Newsome believed if the team had weathered the controversy in 2000 when All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis was charged in a double homicide after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, and had endured the criticism after running back Jamal Lewis' guilty plea to cocaine trafficking in 2004, it could certainly weather the controversy surrounding this trio of arrests, too. The Ravens on Friday denied this: "John Harbaugh did not want to release Ray Rice until he saw the second video on September 8 for the first time. The video changed everything for all of us," the team said.

"Ozzie has always looked out for Ray," said John Minadakis, one of Rice's closest friends, "and Ray has always looked up to Ozzie as a father figure. He didn't want to see Ray crucified for this."

Rice's situation was tumultuous for the Ravens in more ways than one. In 2011, Rice became the primary face of an M&T Bank advertising campaign that plays in heavy rotation on Baltimore radio and television. It's also frequently featured in the pages of The Sun and in local magazines. From 2011 to 2014, a person could scarcely go an hour without seeing or hearing Rice pushing M&T Bank check cards, or repeating the advertising campaign's slogan "Raise the Green Flag!" a slogan the bank says is meant to symbolize a "strong ray of hope in a time of turmoil." M&T Bank -- which operates more than 700 branches on the East Coast and has $85 billion in assets -- entered into a 15-year, $75 million sponsorship deal with the Ravens in 2003, and that deal included the naming rights to the Ravens' downtown stadium. In May, the company extended the naming rights and sponsorship agreement with the team for $60 million over 10 years. A source says the bank expressed concerns about the Rice matter to the Ravens after the first TMZ video had become public.

An avid golfer with a 10 handicap, Bisciotti played 27 holes on March 18 and another 27 holes on March 19 at Augusta National Golf Club, where he is not a member. Goodell, who is also an avid golfer, became an Augusta member in 2013. Goodell and Bisciotti have become good friends, and talk of golf is a lubricant of their friendship, several sources say. The Ravens said Friday that Goodell and Bisciotti did not see one another at Augusta during the owner's time at the club.

Five days later, Bisciotti spoke to reporters for the first time about the Rice matter. "He'll be back with the team," Bisciotti said. "He'll definitely be back. I know how terribly disappointing it is to Ray and his fiancée, how embarrassing it is for them. I have compassion towards him."

Then, on March 27, an Atlantic County grand jury handed up an indictment against Rice, increasing the charge he faced from simple assault to felony aggravated assault in the third degree, for "attempting to cause significant bodily injury, and/or purposely or knowingly causing such injury, and/or recklessly causing such injury under extreme indifference to the value of human life."

Suddenly, the Ray Rice case had become more serious. He now faced a potential prison sentence of three to five years. And yet, according to public statements made by Bisciotti and other team officials, the team decided at that point to stop seeking to obtain or even view a copy of the inside-elevator video.

A day after the indictment, on March 28, Ray and Janay Rice married in a private ceremony at an undisclosed location.

April and May

Ravens and NFL officials have said publicly they stopped trying to obtain a copy of the inside-elevator video last spring, but Diamondstein, Rice's defense lawyer, was continuing to fight with the Revel casino and prosecutors to get a copy to help build Rice's defense.

Ultimately, on April 1, the Revel, under subpoena, provided Diamondstein with a copy, and he received the same copy from prosecutors on April 5. By phone, Diamondstein told Cass that the video was "f---ing horrible" and that it was clear "Ray knocked her the f--- out." The lawyer advised Cass that the video, if released, would amount to a public relations disaster for the Ravens and for his client.

Cass listened carefully but never asked Diamondstein to provide the Ravens with a copy of the video -- nor, for that matter, did anyone from the NFL ask Diamondstein for a copy, several sources say.

Instead, Cass strategized on the best next move for Rice in court, agreeing with Diamondstein that the video would almost certainly become public if the Rice case went to trial. Cass agreed with Diamondstein that getting Rice accepted into New Jersey's pretrial intervention program, which is for first-time offenders charged with nonviolent crimes, would be the best outcome for Rice and the Ravens. It not only would keep Rice out of jail but also would fortify the team's argument to Goodell that Rice should be given a suspension of fewer games because he had entered a diversionary program.

For his part, Rice spent most of his time working out at Sweat Performance, a gym regularly frequented by Ravens football players, their wives and girlfriends, and up-and-coming high school and college football players. One afternoon in mid-April, Rice and Jakobe finished a workout just as a group of 15 high school football players entered the gym to begin their own grueling training session. Rice asked the players to form a semicircle around him, then he began talking. The speech lasted only a few minutes, but right away, Rice began to cry as he tried to get the words out. He put his arms around the nearest boys, several of whom were now crying, as well, and the semicircle closed in to become more like a football huddle. I made a huge mistake. I hit my wife, and I'm so sorry. But I want to tell you, please don't focus on trying to be the kind of man I was. Focus on being a better man than I was.

Back in Atlantic County, New Jersey, Diamondstein was wrangling with prosecutors to get the pretrial intervention program for Rice. Initially, prosecutors rejected it as an option. But Diamondstein pressed, and, by early May, he had put together a package of nearly 30 letters of support, from Rice's former Rutgers University coach Greg Schiano, friends and teammates, even one from Ashton Dean, an 8-year-old boy from Harford County, Maryland, who had a rare disease and for whom Rice had helped raise money. The leaders of the Ravens also wrote a letter on Rice's behalf. In a letter to Diamondstein dated May 9, Cass, Newsome and Harbaugh extolled Rice's contributions to the community, charities and his team.

Four days later, first assistant prosecutor Diane Ruberton signed off on the pretrial intervention program. And on May 20, Rice and his wife marched into the courtroom of Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Donio, who granted Rice's entry into the diversionary program. If Rice completed the one-year program, including attending anger management classes, the court would dismiss the felony aggravated assault charge. The arrest would remain on Rice's record, but without a conviction. PTI is an unusual result for defendants charged with aggravated assault in the third degree, defense lawyers and New Jersey domestic violence legal advocates say; less than 1 percent of all assault and aggravated assault cases in New Jersey are resolved by PTI, according to data obtained by "Outside the Lines."

"The decision was arrived at after careful consideration of the information contained in Mr. Rice's application in light of all of the facts gathered during the investigation," prosecutor McClain said that day.

On May 23, Rice and his wife addressed the media at a Ravens-hosted news conference in Owings Mills, Maryland. While they sat side by side -- no Baltimore executives or media relations staff accompanied them -- Rice apologized for letting the public down, but did not apologize to his wife. Domestic violence experts criticized the optics of the event, saying the team insensitively propped up an abused woman next to her abuser for the cameras. During the event, the Ravens' official Twitter account sent out this tweet: "Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident."

June and July

Inside the NFL's New York City headquarters at 345 Park Ave. on June 16, Goodell presided over Rice's disciplinary meeting. Ray and Janay Rice were accompanied by Newsome and Cass as well as by two NFLPA representatives. Goodell was joined by Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of labor policy, and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash. Several former executives and lawyers who represent players and coaches before the league said a player or coach facing discipline is rarely accompanied by the team GM and the team president in a hearing before Goodell and league officials. A league source insists it has happened numerous times before, but he did not provide examples.

Before leaving for New York, Rice was told by several Ravens executives that he had better be completely honest and forthcoming with the commissioner because the organization believed Goodell had seen a copy of the inside-elevator video. A source confirmed to "Outside the Lines" that the team believed this. It's unclear why exactly the Ravens thought Goodell had seen the video -- whether they had been told that or whether they assumed so given the league's aggressive investigative tactics in other cases. Asked for comment, the Ravens parsed that description Friday, calling it an "assumption" and not a "belief." It is well-known among players and union officials that Goodell won't stand for someone lying to him about behavior; he will harshly punish anyone he discovers has lied to him.

With his wife sitting by his side in a conference room, Rice told Goodell that he hit her and knocked her out, according to four sources. Cass and Newsome spoke on Rice's behalf. So did Janay, who emotionally asked Goodell not to impose a penalty on Rice that would take away their livelihood and besmirch his name. At the end of the meeting, according to several sources, Goodell invited Ray and Janay to have a brief private chat with him in his office; during the conversation, the commissioner spoke about how Ray Rice could be a spokesman in the future against domestic violence, the sources said. Rice later told friends the commissioner spent the majority of the meeting discussing Rice's reputation as a positive role model in the community.

Last week, Goodell told CBS News that, during the disciplinary meeting, Rice provided an "ambiguous" account of what had happened inside the elevator. And in its Sept. 12 letter justifying the indefinite suspension, the league said Rice's account was "starkly different" from what was seen on the inside-elevator video. Four sources, however, told "Outside the Lines" that Rice gave Goodell a truthful account that he struck his fiancée. Furthermore, it would seem that if Rice had given an "ambiguous" account, sources say Goodell had even more incentive to try to obtain a copy of the in-elevator video to clear up any lingering questions. But he did not do that. "For you not to have seen the video is inexcusable," a league source told "Outside the Lines." "Because everybody was under the impression that you had."

But after the June 16 meeting with Ray and Janay Rice, the league made no additional effort to obtain the video, Goodell himself acknowledged last week. The NFL also did not seek a copy of the video from Rice's defense attorney, according to several sources.

Two previous times in high-profile disciplinary matters Goodell had dealt, in varying ways, with potentially incendiary video evidence.

The first was the so-called Spygate investigation in 2007 after New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his assistants were caught using a secret videotaping system of opponents' coaches over the course of multiple seasons. Within five days, Goodell decided on the punishment, fining Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and stripping New England of a first-round draft choice. But Goodell also ordered all the spying videotapes destroyed, leaving it a mystery how much the spying had helped the Patriots win games, including Super Bowls in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons. Goodell is extremely close to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and some owners and other executives felt their relationship had played a role in the punishment, which they felt could have been harsher.

Video was also critical evidence in the Bountygate investigation against the New Orleans Saints, whom Goodell concluded had run a pay-to-hit-and-injure bounty program. The Saints head coach, Sean Payton, was suspended for a season, and four other defensive players were given lengthy suspensions. A sideline videotape of the 2009 NFC Championship game against the Vikings was shown by league officials to reporters, who were told that Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove "smiles and winks and states, 'Bobby give me my money'" on the bench after putting a crushing hit on Vikings QB Brett Favre. Thanks to the NFL's showing the video to reporters, Hargrove became the public villain of the scandal, but it turned out it wasn't Hargrove's voice on the tape.

In the Rice case, as Goodell was being lobbied to be lenient, the league made only a token effort to obtain the inside-elevator video that was clearly the most critical piece of evidence. League officials tried to get it from law enforcement, but Goodell said it would be "illegal" to try to obtain it from the Revel casino, which legal experts later said was not true.

Such is the assumption by some front offices that Goodell plays favorites among the owners that Woody Johnson, the Jets owner, was enraged after Goodell conducted a closed-door coin-flip to determine whether the Jets or Giants would host the first home game at the new Met Life Stadium in September 2010. The Giants won, Goodell announced, but no team representatives witnessed Goodell's coin flip. Johnson accused Goodell of rigging the coin toss for Giants owner John Mara, who Goodell counts as one of his closest confidants.

In 2010, Goodell suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games under the league's personal conduct policy after he was accused -- though not arrested or charged -- with sexually assaulting a college student after a night of drinking in a bar in Milledgeville, Ga. Goodell, however, reduced Roethlisberger's suspension to four games, writing in a letter to the Super Bowl-winning quarterback he could see Roethlisberger was "committed to making better decisions." Steelers co-owner Art Rooney II accompanied Roethlisberger to his meeting with Goodell, and told ESPN he had been in contact with Goodell throughout the four-month process.

By early July, NFL beat reporters kept hearing Rice would get a six-game suspension. But privately, Ravens officials said they felt confident Rice would get only two games. One source who spoke to Cass said he had heard at least two weeks before Goodell announced the penalty that Rice would receive only a two-game suspension. Rice's friends say he didn't hear his suspension was two games until July 23, the day before Goodell announced it.

Almost immediately, there was widespread criticism of and questions about Goodell's investigation, evidence and judgment.

Some reporters who cover the NFL had implied in their reports that the inside-elevator video had justified the lenient punishment. That prompted some broadcasters and reporters to attempt to ask league officials what they had seen, if anything: In an ESPN Radio interview on July 28, host Mike Greenberg twice asked Birch, the NFL's labor policy vice president, whether Goodell had screened the inside-elevator video of Rice's assault on his then-fiancée. Each time, Birch declined to answer, citing "privacy" concerns, presumably of the Rices. Birch also said league officials, including Goodell, were satisfied the two-game punishment was appropriate after considering all the circumstances.

The Ravens seemed ready to move forward, as well. "There are consequences when you make a mistake like that," Harbaugh said when asked for his opinion of Rice's suspension. "I stand behind Ray. He's a heck of a guy. He's done everything right since. He makes a mistake, all right? He's going to have to pay a consequence. I think that's good for kids to understand it works that way. That's how it works, that's how it should be."

But within days of his announcement, Goodell confided to someone in his inner circle that he wasn't sure he had done the right thing on the Rice suspension, according to two people familiar with the exchange. The person, who speaks with the commissioner regularly, said he came away from the conversation with the strong impression Goodell regretted that someone had talked him out of leveling a tougher penalty against Ray Rice.

On July 31, Rice took questions from the media for the first time: "I take full responsibility for what happened," Rice said. "My wife can do no wrong. What happened that night was something that should've never happened. ... The last thing I want my wife to do is ever live in fear."

Rice's heartfelt words of contrition received positive reviews. In The Baltimore Sun the next day, a headline captured the general sentiment: "Now the healing can begin."

August and September

Yet the criticism of Goodell over the appropriateness of the two-game suspension only intensified. On Aug. 1, Goodell defended his decision, telling reporters, "I take into account all of the information before I make a decision on what the discipline will be. In this case, there was no discipline by the criminal justice system. They put him in that diversionary program." No reporter, however, asked Goodell whether he had seen the inside-elevator video.

Shortly after that, Betsey Locke, M&T Bank's group vice president for advertising, promotions and sponsorships, announced that Harbaugh would become the new face of the bank's marketing campaign. Rice would no longer be featured.

With public pressure mounting from players, women's right's advocates and domestic violence experts, Goodell wrote a lengthy letter on Aug. 28 to the league's 32 owners to announce he had decided to change the league's personal conduct policy involving domestic violence incidents. The unilateral decision was extraordinary: A player's first offense would now get a mandatory six-game suspension; a second incident would merit a player being barred from the league.

"I didn't get it right," Goodell wrote in the letter to the owners. "Simply put, we have to do better. And we will." Goodell outlined a host of domestic violence reforms he would shepherd. "Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong," he wrote. "They are illegal. They are never acceptable and they have no place in the NFL under any circumstances."

On the first Sunday of the NFL season, the suspended Rice invited Jakobe over to his house to watch Baltimore play its division rival, the Cincinnati Bengals, with Janay and the couple's daughter. Rice's suspension was slated to end in five days, after the Ravens' Thursday night contest against the Steelers. He was anxious, but optimistic. After the Bengals game was over, a 23-16 win for Cincinnati, Rice told his friends he wanted to take this opportunity to thank them for sticking by him. I know maybe it didn't always reflect well on you how supportive you were of me, but I just wanted to say thanks, Jakobe says Rice told them. It was a really tough time. I know you probably took some hits for it. But we're here now. I have an outlet again to where I can get out and play football again. Me and Janay are doing really well. Thanks for sticking by us.

Rice went to bed that night feeling the storm that had consumed his life for seven months was finally about to subside, his friends say. He was eager to get back on the field.

When the second TMZ video was released early the next morning, the image of Rice's crushing left hook to Janay's face played repeatedly on ESPN and other national news shows and filled people's social media feeds. The public reaction was swift and devastating. Immediately, questions were raised anew about the appropriateness of Goodell's two-game suspension and the league's handling of scores of other domestic violence cases. Rice was further castigated. That afternoon, the Ravens terminated Rice's contract. In 2012, Rice signed a five-year, $35 million contract with a $15 million signing bonus. He had three years left on that deal when the Ravens voided it. Within an hour after the Ravens released Rice, the NFL announced that Rice was suspended indefinitely.

Bisciotti and the team released a letter to Ravens season-ticket holders contending that the team had not seen the video until the morning of Sept. 8, when TMZ released it to the public, and that they found it "violent and horrifying" and had voted unanimously to release Rice. Bisciotti also stated that the team would be donating $600,000 to the House of Ruth, the Baltimore shelter for battered women. Rice and his friends read the letter with barely concealed contempt and disgust. "I think a lot of people were quick to say 'Oh what a stand-up guy,'" Jakobe said. "I think if you look at it objectively, it's a massive cover-up attempt."

Minutes later, Rice's phone buzzed. He could scarcely believe what he was looking at-- back-to-back text messages from Bisciotti. Rice read them aloud so everyone in the room could hear them:

Hey Ray, just want to let you know, we loved you as a player, it was great having you here. Hopefully all these things are going to die down. I wish the best for you and Janay.

When you're done with football, I'd like you to know you have a job waiting for you with the Ravens helping young guys getting acclimated to the league.

Rice was flabbergasted. One minute Bisciotti and the Ravens were essentially calling him a liar, the next Bisciotti was quietly offering him a job? Rice took a screen shot of the message, but Jakobe reminded him that anyone could send the text and simply change the name in the contacts to "Steve Bisciotti" to make it appear it had come from the Ravens owner. So Rice deleted Bisciotti's name in his contacts and took a second screen shot of his phone, leaving only the message and the cellphone number. That way there could be no denying who had sent it. "I saw the text; [friend] Courtney Greene saw the text; and Ray actually read it out loud to us," Jakobe said. "I saw it probably more than anybody." One of Rice's friends provided the text's content to "Outside the Lines," which confirmed through two independent sources that the number listed belongs to a cellphone regularly used by Bisciotti. A few days later, after thinking about it more, Rice told friends he believed Bisciotti was suggesting that, as long as he kept quiet and stuck to the story that he had misled team officials and Goodell about what had happened in the elevator, the Ravens would take care of him down the road. He felt incredibly insulted.

"There is just so much pollution around the whole thing, it's hard to breathe," Jakobe said.

Asked about the text messages Friday, the team did not deny Bisciotti had sent them: "His text messages to Ray reflect his belief that everyone is capable of redemption and that others, including players, can learn from Ray's experience."

The league would eventually defend the indefinite suspension by saying Rice gave a "starkly different" account on June 16 from what Goodell watched on the TMZ inside-elevator video. But the Ravens have had difficulty sticking to that storyline. On Sept. 10, Bisciotti, Newsome and Cass granted a lengthy interview to The Sun, explaining why the second video "changed everything" and led to Rice's immediate release. But when asked by the Sun whether the video matched what Rice had told them months earlier, Newsome conceded that it had. "You know, Ray had given a story to John [Harbaugh] and I," Newsome said. "And what we saw on the video was what Ray said. Ray didn't lie to me. He didn't lie to me."

Cass quickly followed up with a comment that seemed to contradict what Newsome had just said. "There's a big difference between reading a report that says he knocked her unconscious or being told that someone had slapped someone and that she had hit her head," Cass said. "That is one version of the facts. That's what we understood to be the case. When you see the video, it just looks very different than what we understood the facts to be."

Newsome's answer did not go unnoticed by Rice, friends of the running back say. Rice told Jakobe and Minadakis that Newsome is the only member of the Ravens organization he is willing to have any association with in the future. Ozzie Newsome is the only one, Rice believes, willing to tell the truth.

Rice would appeal the indefinite suspension and seek to have an arbitrator other than Goodell, who is a witness to the June 16 conversation, decide the appeal's merits. Friends say he's still holding out hope he'll play this season, although he knows it's a long shot.

Goodell on Sept. 10 appointed Mueller, the former FBI chief, to oversee an "independent" investigation of the Rice matter. The investigation will be led by two Goodell allies -- Steelers owner Rooney and Giants owner Mara. Mueller is a partner in the law firm WilmerHale, where Cass was a partner and worked for 31 years before joining the Ravens in 2004. Recently, the law firm also helped the NFL negotiate a multibillion-dollar contract extension with DirecTV.

"Outside the Lines" contacted Harbaugh on Friday morning to ask if he felt he'd been kept in the dark during any part of the process, and the coach reaffirmed his stance that he did not know Rice had violently punched his future wife until Sept. 8, when TMZ released the second video from inside the elevator.

This week, Goodell also named four women to lead a new domestic violence initiative for the league. He also vowed Friday to overhaul the player conduct policy with the help of a committee.

League sources have told reporters that Goodell is working around the clock to deal with the fallout from the Adrian Peterson child abuse case and other domestic violence crises that have become public since the Rice scandal grew. They say the commissioner is committed to implementing wide-ranging domestic violence initiatives that will have far-reaching impact beyond the game.

The NFL's billionaire owners, who pay Goodell more than $44 million a year, are said to be supporting him as he navigates the worst crisis in NFL history and as some league sponsors, most notably Anheuser-Busch, are jittery. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is asking the owners to sign a petition of support for Goodell; at least three have apparently done so. For his part, Goodell has told friends he'd never resign, and he said he's confident his job is not in jeopardy.

When asked last week by CBS News whether he believed his job was on the line, Goodell said, "No. I'm used to criticism. I'm used to that. Every day, I have to earn my stripes. Every day, I have to, to do a better job. And that's my responsibility to the game, to the NFL and to what I see as society. People expect a lot from the NFL. We accept that. We embrace that. That's our opportunity to make a difference, not just in the NFL but in society in general. We have that ability. We have that influence. And we have to do that. And every day, that's what we're going to strive to do."

At a Friday press conference in New York, Goodell again acknowledged he had made mistakes in the handling of Rice's case and apologized: "We will get our house in order first ... The same mistakes can never be repeated."

Investigative reporters John Barr and Paula Lavigne of ESPN's Enterprise/Investigative Unit and ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson contributed to this report.