What was the NFL’s biggest mistake this year?

Not hiring former FBI Director Louis Freeh to handle the Ray Rice investigation, back in February when the narrative was still up for grabs. I appreciate why they’ve now retained another former FBI chief, Robert Mueller, but the play clock on the NFL’s ability to control the narrative on this story ran out months ago.

I say this with bitterness, as two tragic sports stories play out this week — both involving a struggle between winning in the increasingly-important court of American public opinion and simply allowing our actual courts to deliver justice.

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Penn State won the narrative game (even if their student athletes lost). Their board of directors shrewdly invested millions in private investigator (and former FBI chief) Louis Freeh in 2011 and 2012 to convincingly simulate the delivery of justice after the Jerry Sandusky case. The crimes of child molestation were hideous, public opinion was controlling the day, and the Freeh Report delivered just what its client asked for: a more controlled narrative in the press, then heads on platters to seal the deal with the media and the public.

The NFL, on the other hand, tried to contain their criminal situation. NFL security personnel and executives most likely saw the Ray Rice elevator tape months ago — but until the visuals were available to the public, they felt OK going small. No heads on a platter for them…until now.

Earlier this week, the NFL went nuclear on Ray Rice, and Wednesday they reached desperately for expert help by hiring former FBI chief Robert Mueller — an upstanding former public official who may very well help, but not one who writes a PR narrative like Louis Freeh.

With Penn State’s Freeh Report, the public’s blood lust was sated early. No one cared too much about the fact that Louis Freeh was not “the law,” he was just a highly-paid private contractor. He gave good PR, and the results felt like justice. 

Two short years later, public opinion has successfully simmered down so much that the NCAA has now lifted some of the post-Sandusky sanctions on Penn State

Lifting the sanctions against Penn State reminded us that those actions weren’t just from the beginning. By denying Penn State football players a post-season and full scholarship potential, the NCAA sanctions made student athletes pay for a demented coach’s crimes — crimes for which Sandusky is paying because justice was served by the courts. The sanctions helped with public opinion in the heat of the moment, but that action was never just. 

And what about other over-reactions fueled by the Freeh Report? The Report prompted the Pennsylvania attorney general to criminally prosecute former Penn State President Graham Spanier despite scant evidence of criminal liability. Spanier might very well be innocent, but the Report and resulting prosecution has decimated his life. Again, PR was valued over justice.

If you don’t care about the casualties involved, buying an outside judicial system can work out really well for an institution’s marketing and PR. 

The NFL figured this out too late. Louis Freeh is expensive, but he is treated by the media and prosecutors as if he carries the force of law. Right now, his investigations into the BP multimillion-dollar payout process in New Orleans have succeeded in delaying or stopping payments to parties harmed by the disastrous Gulf well explosion. Meanwhile, the Freeh Group collects millions for operating as a parallel civil justice system.

Penn State got what they paid for. They, and the NCAA, worked off of the Freeh Report to manage the narrative and scorch the earth. They went big, now they can scale back, rebuild and recoup. It’s not justice, but it their PR plan worked.

The NFL, meanwhile, has had to ramp up punishment based on public outrage, which is pretty awkward. It’s bad PR.

I can’t help but wonder if the NFL reached out to Robert Mueller because Louis Freeh isn’t available (he’s recovering from injuries he sustained in a car crash a few weeks ago). We’ll never know, but I’ll be curious to see who they hire the next time a player or coach does something criminally bad.

Hopefully by then Americans will be waking up to the fact that just because something feels like justice, doesn’t mean it is…it might actually be nothing more than a big institution spending a lot of money making sure we are satisfied and continue buying their product.