New York Giants co-owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, both close confidants of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, said they would not be conducting or directing the investigation. They said it would have no timeline, and that former FBI director Robert Mueller was set to begin work immediately.
They said the inquiry's focus will be on what efforts were made to obtain video evidence of the three-time Pro Bowl running back striking his fiancee; if the video arrived at the league office; and what happened to it after it was delivered.
"Our sole motive here is to get the truth and then share Mr. Mueller's findings with the public," Rooney and Mara said in a joint statement.
The probe — which the league has called independent — was announced Wednesday hours after The Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, sent a video to an NFL executive in April of Rice striking Janay Palmer at an Atlantic City casino.
Goodell has claimed repeatedly the NFL didn't see a full account of the fight until Monday, when TMZ posted it. Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens after the video went viral. The team had previously stood by him.
The law enforcement official said he wasn't authorized to release the video, but wanted the NFL to have it as it decided on the Rice case. He played a 12-second voicemail confirming receipt of the video. A female voice expresses thanks and says: "You're right. It's terrible."
As Mueller begins to examine the case, he will likely start with Goodell's top administrators, who help him run America's most popular and profitable sport. Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti could also be under the lens.
Anyone at NFL headquarters could have known months ago that the video of Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator had been sent to the league. To figure it out, Mueller will have access to anyone he wants to talk to, as well as internal NFL documents.
Those on the roster of Goodell's inner circle — and those likely to be on Mueller's radar — are NFL general counsel Jeff Pash; director of football operations Troy Vincent; security chief Jeffrey Miller; executive vice-president of human resources Robert Gulliver; and senior vice-president of labour policy and government affairs Adolpho Birch.
John M. Dowd, the attorney from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who was retained by Major League Baseball in 1989 to investigate Pete Rose's gambling, says Mueller must have full authority, and that thoroughness is paramount.
"You talk to the police and the person that sent it to them, and you do whatever you have to do to find out what people knew and when," Dowd told The Associated Press. "There's always more people to talk to than you think initially. We ended up in Rose with over 100 witnesses, and we talked to all of them three times, just to double-check ourselves because we had paper coming in all the time. Here you got videos, and you'll probably want to talk to Rice and his girlfriend."
Mueller, who led the FBI for 12 years, is a partner at WilmerHale, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm with deep ties to the NFL and sports world. Familiar with the NFL, the firm has sent several members on to jobs with teams.
Partner David Donovan spent 20 years at the law firm before joining the Washington Redskins, where he was general counsel and chief operating officer. From 1997 to 2004, current Cleveland Browns President Alec Scheiner was at WilmerHale, where he advised on various sports transactions, worked for current Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass and did work for the Dallas Cowboys.
The league has turned a critical lens on itself before. In two high-profile investigations under Goodell's administration, the league found the Patriots guilty of spying on the New York Jets' defensive signals, and the Saints were found to have run a three-year bounty system for hits by defensive players.
Both of those probes were conducted by the NFL, although several player suspensions in the Saints case eventually were overturned by an independent appeals officer — Paul Tagliabue, Goodell's predecessor.
The National Organization for Women said Goodell should resign and an independent committee should be appointed to suggest lasting reforms, calling the Mueller investigation "just window dressing."
AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this story from New York. Associated Press Writer Pete Yost contributed from Washington.