The video of the hit to the face, the pictures of the lash marks on a young boy’s body and all the rest of the unseemly evidence rolled out over days and weeks in a steady, stomach-churning stream.
With virtually every revelation about domestic abuse committed by Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and other players, the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, made a new misstep that sent out a clear, repeating message: They were in over their heads.
That, in short, summed up the biggest headlines of 2014 for America’s favorite sport. The NFL’s domestic-abuse crisis was voted sports story of the year by a panel of editors across the country.
The $9 billion industry that U.S. fans devour on a weekly basis ran into a public-relations crisis, the likes of which nobody could have predicted and not even the league’s supposedly well-oiled spin machine could repair. The real victims weren’t the league or the players, whose punishment often felt arbitrary, but rather, the women and children these players were supposed to care for and protect.
“In regards to their policy, they did not do well when this first came about,” said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “In a lot of ways, that can be very dangerous for some people.”
As the season progressed and the scandal unfolded, the league and its teams took steps to try to remedy the problems — public-service ads, an increased focus on education and adopting a new, tougher policy, even though it was enacted without the blessing of the players union.
With the calendar about to flip, though, there are no guarantees the league has contained its crisis.
Rice, his skills declining, is eligible to play again after receiving a suspension that started at two games, was made indefinite when the video surfaced of him punching his then-fiancee in an elevator, then was scrubbed by a neutral arbitrator who ruled against the NFL for not adhering to its own discipline rules.
Peterson, who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault for injuring his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch, has been suspended indefinitely and is eligible to apply for reinstatement next year. He was suing to have the suspension repealed, though with the Vikings’ season ending Dec. 28, there’s no returning this season.
But Peterson’ s court case, the eventual return of either of the running backs, or the appearance of new cases against players in a league that has averaged more than six domestic-abuse arrests a year, according to a USA Today database, all have potential to keep domestic abuse and the NFL’s handling of it in the headlines.
And the report from former FBI director Robert Mueller — who is trying to find out, among other things, when, exactly, the league knew about the inside-the-elevator video of Rice’s punch — will likely come out soon to spawn yet another series of news cycles.
While all that plays out, the NFL has to keep working at restoring its image and making some real changes. Glenn believes the proof of the NFL’s contrition will play out over months and years, not simply because of one new policy, or a few well-placed PSAs.
“It’s good to have things on paper and to do the training,” she said. “But once a policy is truly implemented, it’ll take a while. The real proof may not come when someone gets in trouble. It could be because nobody’s getting in trouble.”
The new policy calls for a six-game suspension without pay for violations involving assault, sexual assault, battery, domestic violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence. It also calls for the league to hire a special counsel to handle investigations and mete out the initial punishment. It keeps Goodell in position to handle appeals, something the union disagrees with considering his history, not only in the Rice and Peterson cases but in cases dealing with illegal drugs, performance enhancers, and other player conduct.
“If you put together a plan, you have to consider all your stakeholders,” said crisis-management expert Jonathan Bernstein. “You’d think the union would be high on that list. You can’t impose a significant change of direction in any organization without getting some buy-in from the stakeholders first.”
Among the stakeholders whose confidence in Goodell has not budged are the owners, a group of 32 multimillionaires who owe at least some of their wealth to the commissioner’s business acumen and have not seen much backlash from the advertisers that bankroll the league.
And the fans: TV ratings have barely budged, attendance is steady and fans play fantasy football to the tune of billions of dollars.
“I expect they’ll regain credibility, but it’ll take some time and distance,” said Michael Gordon of Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis PR firm in New York. “If they don’t handle it well going forward, then yes, eventually it’ll hurt them.”
Handling it well, Glenn said, is a matter of more than just good PR.
“Hate to say it, but I’ll say it anyway: They need to put their money where their mouth is,” she said. “If they truly believe in eradicating domestic violence, it would be in their best interest during the offseason if they made a real effort in supporting the cause.”
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