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Governor And Sponsors Voice Concerns With N.F.L.

New York Times, September 06, 2014

By Ken Belson

The N.F.L., it seems, has been unable to keep up with the roiling storm over its handling of multiple domestic violence cases that have captured the nation’s attention and started to eclipse the action on the field.

On Tuesday, sponsors who pay hundreds of millions of dollars to have their names and products associated with the N.F.L. started to voice their anxiety with how the N.F.L. has handled the crisis, which has included a growing number of calls for Commissioner Roger Goodell to step down.

Anheuser-Busch, one of the league’s most prominent sponsors, said it was “disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this N.F.L. season.” Nike, which provides uniforms, jerseys and other gear to the N.F.L., has pulled Adrian Peterson jerseys from its stores in the Minneapolis area, though not online, The Associated Press reported.

Also in Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton became the latest politician to weigh in when he said that Peterson, the Vikings’ star running back, who faces child abuse charges in Texas, should be suspended by the team.

The moves come on a day that Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back who is at the center of the turmoil, appealed his open-ended suspension. Goodell, who had suspended Rice for two games, suspended him indefinitely after new footage was released Sept. 8 showing him knocking out his fiancée in a hotel elevator in February.

The N.F.L. Players Association said it filed the appeal to “protect the due process rights of all N.F.L. players.” The union said there was a “a lack of a fair and impartial process, including the role of the office of the commissioner of the N.F.L.” and asked that an independent arbitrator hear Rice’s case.

Goodell has tried to calm the furor. Last week, he appointed a former F.B.I. director to look into how the league had handled the Rice case, and on Monday, he appointed four women to help shape the league’s strengthened policies on domestic violence. On Tuesday, the league named Cynthia Hogan as the N.F.L.'s chief lobbyist in Washington. She has worked in the Obama administration and helped Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. shape the Violence Against Women Act when he was in the Senate.

Each announcement by the N.F.L., though, seems to be met with many others calling on the league to do more. Dayton, a Democrat who helped the Vikings receive public financing for their new stadium, emphasized that Peterson should be considered innocent until proven guilty. But in a statement, he said that Peterson “is a public figure; and his actions, as described, are a public embarrassment to the Vikings organization and the State of Minnesota. Therefore, I believe the team should suspend Mr. Peterson until the accusations of child abuse have been resolved by the criminal justice system.”

After benching Peterson for last Sunday’s game against New England, which won by 23 points, the Vikings said Monday that they would reinstate Peterson for their next game, on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The team reversed that decision early Wednesday, placing him on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list, which requires him to stay away from the team while he addresses the charges.

The Vikings’ difficulties come as teams across the league grapple with the N.F.L.'s inconsistent treatment of players accused of crimes, including domestic violence. The San Francisco 49ers have let Ray McDonald play after he was arrested in August on suspicion of domestic violence, and the Carolina Panthers let Greg Hardy, who was convicted of domestic violence charges but not suspended by the league, play in the season opener.

After the N.F.L.'s original two-game suspension of Rice prompted a backlash, Goodell apologized and strengthened the league’s penalties for players convicted in domestic violence cases. Members of Congress have called on Goodell to do more to address the issue. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said hearings could be called on the matter.

Senator Cory A. Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, introduced a bill Tuesday that would disallow major professional sports leagues, most notably the N.F.L., from claiming status as tax-exempt nonprofits.

The larger headache for Goodell is keeping some of his biggest sponsors happy. National sponsors, including Verizon, have issued statements supporting Goodell and their commitment to the N.F.L. Anheuser-Busch, though, was the first major sponsor to express concern.

It said it was “not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code” and it said it had “shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”

There was no hint that Anheuser-Busch might walk away from the N.F.L. But it suggested that the company was trying to be sensitive to supporting a popular league and not appearing to support the behavior of some of its players. Ultimately, sponsors do not want to be singled out by protesters who view them as enablers of the player or league.

“They fear that whatever coalition comes together to protest the N.F.L. will target them as sponsors,” said Lesa Ukman, who publishes the IEG Sponsorship Report, a biweekly newsletter on sports, arts and entertainment marketing. “They will want people to understand they are not part of the problem.”

Thus far, the protests have taken many forms, including news releases, online campaigns and banners being flown over stadiums on game days. On Monday, a CoverGirl ad campaign designed to draw female football fans was defaced. Hackers blackened the eye of a woman in a “Get Your Game Face On” online campaign and added the words, “Boycott CoverGirl, Official Beauty Sponsor of the N.F.L.”

CoverGirl removed the photo and issued a statement that said it “believes domestic violence is completely unacceptable” and that it had “encouraged the N.F.L. to take swift action on their path forward to address the issue of domestic violence.”

In Minnesota, the Radisson hotel chain temporarily suspended its sponsorship of the Vikings. The Radisson name is emblazoned on the screens that serve as a backdrop for news conferences by team personnel. The company’s name was seen on television Monday when Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman spoke to reporters about the team’s decision to reinstate Peterson for its next game.

“Radisson takes this matter very seriously, particularly in light of our longstanding commitment to the protection of children,” the company said in a statement. “We are closely following the situation and, effective immediately, Radisson is suspending its limited sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings while we evaluate the facts and circumstances.”

Peterson’s charity for children, the All Day Foundation, posted a message on its website that it was going offline to “protect our charity partners from the continued harassment they have received from the media.”

“The foundation will continue to support the causes that Adrian and his family care about and will consider how the current situation impacts the direction for Adrian’s philanthropy,” the statement said.