(Reuters) - Two NFL teams succumbed to public pressure and suspended two players enmeshed in domestic abuse cases on Wednesday in the midst of intensifying criticism by corporate sponsors and politicians of America’s top sports league.
Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy were both placed on their team’s “exempt list,” putting them on paid leaves of absence while the cases against them are resolved.
In announcing their actions, officials of both the Vikings and the Panthers talked about the need “to get this right.”
The two teams’ decisions suggest a new tack by owners toward the domestic violence scandal engulfing the 32-team NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell.
A flurry of cases, most notably those of Peterson and Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens star who has also been suspended indefinitely by the NFL, has raised questions about the league’s integrity and Goodell’s leadership.
On Wednesday the level of criticism ratcheted up, with the U.S. House of Representatives Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, speaking up, and moves by two big corporate sponsors - TD Ameritrade and Nike.
Zygi Wilf, who co-owns the Vikings with his brother, Mark, said that they had “made a mistake and we needed to get this right,” after they had reactivated Peterson on Monday following his indictment last week on charges of beating his 4-year-old son with a branch.
For the Panthers, general manager Dave Gettleman said the team was disappointed in Hardy’s behavior. “We have to get this right. He has to get this right,” Gettleman said.
Hardy, who was convicted in July of domestic violence, has appealed the verdict. He has a trial date in November.
The moves came a day after the NFL was chastised by one of its top sponsors, brewer Anheuser-Busch. But no sponsor has gone so far as to cut its multimillion-dollar ties with the NFL.
Brokerage firm TD Ameritrade AMTD.N, which began a three-year affiliation with the NFL this month, on Wednesday said “it was very much considering its future” as a sponsor.
“We want to see (the NFL) learn from its mistakes and work quickly to improve a culture that values inclusion, safety and respect for its employees, their families and others,” TD Ameritrade spokeswoman Kim Hillyer said in an email.
Nike Inc (NKE.N), known for its steadfast support for its athletes even in troubled times, said it had suspended its contract with Peterson, one of the league’s most marketable players.
The 29-year-old Peterson, the Vikings’ best player, has been accused of reckless or negligent injury to a child, stemming from a whipping incident that allegedly left bruises and wounds on his son.
The NFL called his suspension “a good decision.”
Goodell has the sole authority to place a player on the exempt list under what the league policy calls “unusual circumstances.”
The Vikings will continue to pay the running back his full $11.75 million salary for this season. Team general manager Rick Spielman declined to say whether Peterson would play again this season. If Peterson’s case goes to trial it would likely begin in 2015.
Mark Wilf said the franchise did not suspend Peterson in a bow to pressure from team sponsors. Minnesota-based hotel chain Radisson suspended a sponsorship deal with the Vikings on Monday.
The team also came under withering criticism from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who said on Tuesday that Peterson was a “public embarrassment” to the team and state and should be suspended.
Goodell and the league are struggling to make amends for his initial lenient punishment of Rice, who punched his then-fiancee, now his wife, in February, striking her unconscious.
Although Goodell has announced stricter penalties for domestic violence offenders, that has done little to stem the tidal wave of public criticism following the release of surveillance video last week that showed Rice’s punch, which the league said it had never seen.
On Wednesday in Washington, top U.S. House Democrat Pelosi said Congress could get involved because the league, which takes in $9 billion in annual revenue, has an anti-trust exemption.
“I think Congress always has a role, but again if you’re talking about anti-trust privileges and the rest of that, that certainly is a big issue and it cannot be done except by the Congress,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference in the Capitol, after being peppered with NFL questions.
Goodell has since apologized for the handling of the Rice case. The Pro Bowl running back on Tuesday appealed his indefinite suspension, which came after the video’s publication.
With Rice, Peterson and Hardy all suspended, one player accused of domestic violence still remains eligible, San Francisco 49ers’ Ray McDonald.
Pelosi, an avid 49ers fan, said McDonald should not have taken the field last week.
Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg, Ramkumar Iyer, Jed Horowitz, Richard Cowan and Sam Adams; Editing by Leslie Adler