As the NFL moves on from the last remnants of one of its most unseemly events and its poorly handled aftermath, commissioner Roger Goodell and the entire community of professional football must always remember the underlying issue that got them here in the first place.
Former FBI director Robert Mueller's exhaustive report on the league's botched handling of the Ray Rice matter, which began with a punch to the face of Rice's then-fiancée in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino last February, absolves the commissioner and his staff of having seen the video that catapulted the case to widespread attention and condemnation. But the report should not deter or distract the league from focusing on the hard lessons learned from this unprecedented debacle.
Goodell is officially off the hook, and league owners now can back him unequivocally after Mueller determined that the commissioner saw the video of the punch at the same time the rest of us did. Had it been determined that Goodell had actually seen it and then reacted to the public fallout by replacing his tepid two-game sanction of Rice with an indefinite suspension -- and thus lied -- it would have been grounds for dismissal.
But Mueller's report, which he insists was done independently and with no interference whatsoever from the league, went to unprecedented lengths to determine that the commissioner was telling the truth. And so Goodell earns the continued support of the owners who write his checks.
"We did a call with the owners this morning and there was resounding support for Roger and . . . a belief that he did tell the truth," said Steelers president Art Rooney II, who oversaw the Mueller report with Giants president and CEO John Mara.
Added Mara, "We all believed that from the beginning and we're happy that the report confirmed that. There's a very strong confidence in Roger going forward in terms of him being the commissioner of the league."
But Mara properly puts into context where the league goes from here. After breathing a sigh of relief that they don't need to search for a new commissioner, Mara and his fellow owners, along with Goodell, must continue to focus on a problem that for too long was largely ignored by the league. And often by society in general.
Domestic violence and sexual assault have been difficult subjects to deal with at all levels, and the NFL's poor handling of the Rice situation was a classic example of those failings.
In the end, Goodell and league executives took a much-needed look at where things went wrong and resolved to address the issue in a much more effective way. New policies recently put into place, which enable the league to remove players who are charged in connection with domestic violence or sexual assault from the field and mandate a minimum six-game suspension if there are convictions or plea deals, are an important first step.
"Our goal is to do whatever we can to eradicate domestic violence within our league and take appropriate steps to punish those who are guilty of those violations," Mara said. "The commissioner has made it a focus of his over the past few months, and it's something that we are already committed to doing."
Goodell needs to continue changing the culture of his league, a culture that was partly to blame for the Ravens' failure to disclose information they had about the Rice case early in the investigation.
The Mueller report determined that the Ravens knew within two weeks of the Feb. 15 assault what had happened inside the elevator. They hadn't seen the tape, but they knew Rice had punched his fiancée. And they withheld that information from the league up to and including Rice's appeal hearing with Goodell in June, after which Goodell handed down his initial two-game suspension.
The Ravens were protecting one of their own, and it was wrong. Inexcusably wrong.
They not only protected Rice from the outset but unwittingly hung Goodell out to dry by not telling him what the video told the world on the morning of Sept. 8, when it was posted on TMZSports.com.
It was part of a wrong-headed culture that too often was accepted as the norm in the NFL. But after the spotlight shined a bright light on this kind of subterfuge, let it be a lesson to those moving forward that covering up is not the right choice. Admitting mistakes and moving forward; that's how it's done.
It is a hard-earned lesson for Goodell and all those who are a part of his league. They need to do the right thing and deal with the problem the proper way. Not the way that got them into one of the biggest messes of the commissioner's career.