WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Football League is showing signs of getting off the sidelines in the brouhaha over domestic violence and taking up a new playbook.
The Arizona Cardinals suspended Jonathan Dwyer after his arrest on charges of head-butting and breaking the nose of a woman. The Baltimore Ravens invited fans to trade in jerseys of former star player Ray Rice, who has been indefinitely suspended for punching out his wife.
If teams have learned anything from the abuse scandal convulsing America’s most popular sports league, it may be that acting decisively and quickly against domestic violence is the best way to win in the court of public opinion.
Dwyer is the latest player caught up in the controversy. He was arrested Wednesday on charges of aggravated assault and left an Arizona jail on Thursday.
The team wasted no time in deactivating Dwyer on Wednesday, taking cues from other clubs that kept their players on the field despite similar charges, only to back peddle and take them off the field.
“The Cardinals have the benefit of being fourth in line, so it does benefit them in that sense,” said Robert Boland, a former domestic abuse prosecutor who is now a professor of sports management and law at New York University.
One team that reacted slowly was the Baltimore Ravens, which was caught in the early days of the crisis after Rice beat his then-girlfriend in a casino elevator in February. He was kept on the team with a two-game suspension until a security video surfaced last week showing the punch that knocked his now-wife out cold.
The team invited fans to exchange their Rice jerseys on Friday and Saturday at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium for that of another player, the team said.
It is too early to say if the NFL and embattled commissioner Roger Goodell are turning the corner on the crisis.
Sponsors and women’s groups continued to voice concern over the league’s handling of the spate of cases and urged the NFL to respond more forcefully.
On Thursday evening in Atlanta, site of the day’s only nationally televised NFL game, national women’s advocacy group UltraViolet will have a plane fly over the stadium with a banner saying “#GoodellMustGo” for the game between the Falcons and the Tampa Bay Bucaneers.
Boland said the NFL is on a “surrealistic bumpy ride,” at a time when it should be celebrating the first month of the season and a new television package on Thursday night.
”I don’t want to say the NFL is not taking a hit because this is certainly a very bad cycle for them,“ Boland said. ”On the other hand, the NFL is still the biggest platform to advertise on and be a sponsor of.
“Not today, because it’s too big of a cycle, but at some point during the course of the year, they’ll be able to turn this into a positive.”
Other players accused of domestic abuse are Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers.
Peterson, a former NFL most valuable player and one of its marquee players, has been accused of injuring his 4-year-old son when whipping him with a tree branch.
Both Peterson and Hardy have been placed on the league’s exempt list, sidelining both players with pay until their legal troubles are over. San Francisco continues to have McDonald in the line-up, choosing to let the legal process play out.
According to a NBC News/Marist poll released on Thursday, 86 percent of Americans say the recent clamor about domestic abuse in the NFL has not changed how much professional football they watch and only 29 percent believe Goodell should resign.
The poll of 606 adults was conducted Sept. 16-17 and has a margin of error of plus-minus 4.0 percentage points.
While Goodell remained out of public view this week, a key sponsor spoke up in his favor. The chief executive of soft-drink giant PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, said Wednesday evening that Goodell appears to be handling the incendiary issue correctly.
That is in contrast to the messages from Anheuser-Busch and brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, also big NFL sponsors, which criticized the league’s handling of the cases.
Verizon Communications, another sponsor, said Thursday that the NFL asked it several weeks ago for input on how to tackle the issue of domestic violence.
“We have been working behind the scenes to develop and implement programs that will address the problem at its root,” said Verizon Chief Executive Lowell McAdam, who gave an early endorsement to Goodell last week.
Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas-Austin, said the NFL has the opportunity to emerge stronger from the crisis.
“Roger Goodell has the chance to step up and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and if the players don’t like playing in a league that has these rules, they shouldn’t apply,” said Cramer.
“Do I think this is a long-term issue? No. Concussions are more of an issue. You can stop this behavior and make sure that people are not in the league. I‘m not sure you can stop concussions because of the nature of the game.”
Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler