(Reuters) - A major advertiser expressed support for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday, while a women’s advocacy group called for his resignation in the mounting controversy over his handling of former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice’s domestic violence case.
The NFL late on Wednesday named former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead an inquiry into how the league dealt with evidence in the case, particularly security video from an elevator showing Rice knocking out his then-fiancee and now-wife Janay Palmer with a punch.
While Goodell said the National Football League never saw the tape until it was released by the TMZ website on Monday, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that a law enforcement official said he had the tape delivered to league offices in April.
In addition, ESPN reported on Thursday that Rice told Goodell during a June meeting in the commissioner’s office that he had punched Palmer in the face.
The report, which relied on four anonymous sources close to the former player, contradicts Goodell’s comments in a CBS interview on Tuesday that called Rice’s description of the incident “ambiguous.”
Reuters could not independently confirm the report. Representatives for the NFL did not immediately respond to request for comment.
It is unclear how long Mueller will need for the investigation, leaving a cloud over the NFL at the start of a new season. But in a league with annual revenues of $9 billion, the response of advertisers could be key to Goodell’s future.
Verizon Communications Chief Executive Lowell McAdam, while acknowledging the Rice episode had been disturbing, gave his backing to Goodell, calling him “a man of high integrity.”
McAdam, addressing a conference on Thursday, said he did not believe “there is some conspiracy to cover this up.”
The NFL’s decision to order an investigation could also alleviate some of the tension around one of the biggest scandals to hit the powerful league in years.
“The NFL needs a quick credibility fix and this is the beginning of it,” Rick Horrow, a sports business consultant and lecturer at Harvard Law School, told Reuters.
“From Roger Goodell to every owner, they are very clear on one thing - they want to know, absolutely, the bottom line of this. It’s an NFL issue but it’s also a sports and business issue and a societal watershed.”
Rice was initially suspended for two games after a security tape from February at the Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino showed him pulling an unconscious Palmer from the elevator.
When the second tape surfaced this week showing Rice punching Palmer, the Ravens released the veteran running back and the league suspended him indefinitely.
National Organization for Women President Terry O‘Neill called on Thursday for the immediate resignation of Goodell, who has been the NFL’s commissioner since 2006.
“He just cannot credibly, at this point, commit to making the kinds of changes at the NFL we think need to be made,” she said. “Mr. Goodell is trying to do the very least he can get away with to make this issue go away.”
She said Goodell’s original two-game suspension of Rice “sends a signal to the world that ‘we don’t take domestic violence seriously.'”
O‘Neill also pushed for “a top-to-bottom review” of the NFL’s response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
The Wall Street Journal cited an anonymous NFL team owner in reporting on Thursday that Goodell decided against a more thorough probe of the incident out of respect for Palmer, who he said had claimed partial responsibility for the incident.
Reuters could not independently confirm that report.
Goodell serves at the behest of the NFL team owners and there is no sign they have lost confidence in him. The Mueller investigation will be overseen by owners John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, both Goodell supporters who have longtime ties to the league.
“Advertisers need to get out ahead and be very mindful of public opinion,” said Horrow, who consulted for the NFL in the past. “Forty-one percent of the avid NFL fans are women.”
“This a major emotional issue for all men and women. If this is not handled correctly, clearly advertisers and therefore television contracts are at risk.”
Mara and Rooney said in a statement on Thursday their role in the inquiry was “not to conduct or direct the investigation but to support Mr. Mueller and assist him in gaining whatever access or resources he needs.”
No timeline was set and Mueller was urged to take the time needed for a thorough investigation, they added.
Additional reporting by Christian Plumb and Curtis Skinner; Editing by Mary Milliken, Bill Trott, Peter Cooney and Clarence Fernandez