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NEW YORK — It is not a stretch to say 2014 has been one of the most challenging years in the 94-year history of the National Football League.
Shortly after the Seattle Seahawks uncorked the last of the champagne celebrating the team’s first Super Bowl championship — a dominating defeat of the Denver Broncos in early February — the league was rocked by an off-the-field scandal that ultimately triggered calls for the NFL’s powerful commissioner to resign and for the league to get serious about an alarming issue that has largely been lurking in the shadows even while football enjoyed a surge in popularity worldwide: domestic violence.
When video surfaced on February 19 showing Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice pulling his unconscious fiancée from an Atlantic City hotel-casino elevator a few days earlier, there was immediate reaction in the sports world, especially considering Rice’s longstanding image as a positive role model.
But his coach and other executives with the team quickly came to his defense — and the initial furor subsided in subsequent weeks and months, which included: A criminal indictment against Rice for aggravated assault; his marriage the following day to fiancée Janay Palmer; a pretrial intervention deal for him that could clear his name after a year; and then an awkward press conference featuring the couple.
Eventually, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two games in late July and, despite some criticism that the suspension was not enough, it appeared that might be the end of the saga.
But that was really only just the beginning.
Just days before Rice’s suspension was to conclude, the world got to see for itself what had been speculated about for months — just how Palmer ended up knocked out on that elevator floor.
Video released on September 8 showed Rice and Palmer in a dispute in the hotel lobby that continued into an elevator. Both admitted they had been drinking. Once inside and the doors close, Rice punches his girlfriend in the face and her head strikes a railing as she falls, knocking her out cold. He later drags her from the elevator. Both are arrested.
Suddenly, the two-game suspension was rendered even more inadequate in the eyes of many, and unprecedented pressure fell on the man who levied that punishment, Commissioner Goodell.
Rice was fired by his team, his penalty was strengthened to an indefinite suspension, and the NFL was thrust onto a public-relations hot seat it has seldom occupied.
“Overall, the year has been a challenging one for the NFL,” said Abraham Madkour, executive editor of SportsBusiness Daily/Journal/Daily Global. “I do believe they’ve taken it as a learning experience. They’ve had a hard time taking the message to the public. But you have to give them some credit for taking a step back and evaluating what they’ve missed.”
For his part, Rice was contrite, telling TODAY’s Matt Lauer earlier this month, “me and my wife had one bad night, and I took full responsibility for it.”
And just as Commissioner Goodell fended off calls for his resignation — admitting “I got it wrong” with Rice’s two-game sanction — another scandal erupted that would test his and the league’s resolve to respond with sanctions against players who run afoul of the law.
Later that month, Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s 2012 MVP, was suspended for the season by Goodell after being indicted on September 12 on child-abuse charges involving his four-year-old son. Peterson would plead no contest in the case and avoid jail time.
Peterson also released a mea cupla statement saying, “I take full responsibility for my action. I want to say I truly regret this incident. I stand here and I take full responsibility for my actions. I love my son more than any one of you can even imagine.”
Meanwhile, amid a flurry of headlines, the NFL announced the hiring of three female executives to help chart a new course relating to reducing off-the-field violence and changes to its personal conduct policy for players.
“We've changed the policy,” Goodell told NBC’s Peter Alexander in an exclusive broadcast interview earlier this month. “We've strengthened it. We've toughened it. Being part of the NFL is a privilege, it is not a right.”
And that policy is already being tested.
Ray McDonald, a defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers, was released by the team December 17 in the wake of accusations that he sexually assaulted a woman in his home. McDonald has argued that the sex was consensual, and no charges have been filed yet in that case.
Through the years, the NFL has fiercely guarded and carefully crafted its image, “protecting the shield,” as the mantra has become known, referencing the league’s iconic logo.
But for all its efforts on that front, the league is confronted by another challenge with potentially longer-lasting implications.
Lawsuits filed by former players about concussions and its after effects have put the NFL on its heels about safety and threatens to reverse the game’s growth trends at lower levels, as parents increasingly prohibit their children from taking up the sport, fearing it’s turned too dangerous.
Suicides among former players in recent years have drawn attention to whether repeated brain injuries are resulting in unpredictable, often violent behavior.
A number of former players — and families of those who killed themselves — have agreed to participate in an ongoing brain study to determine a link between football and degenerative disease, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
A study released this fall by the Department of Veterans Affairs, in conjunction with Boston University’s CTE Center, revealed signs of the disease in 76 of 79 brains examined.
In its own study on concussions, the NFL has admitted that it expects one-third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and other associated conditions at “notably younger ages” than average people.
The widespread health problems many former players complain about, some experts say, may ultimately tarnish the game’s allure and perhaps impact its nearly $10 billion annual grip on fans’ wallets in the U.S. and around the world.
Pop Warner, the country’s largest youth football organization, reported a 9.5-percent decline in participation from 2010 to 2012. And even superstar players, like quarterback Brett Favre, have joined other parents nationwide, expressing doubts about whether they can support their child’s involvement, considering the outcomes many former players are dealing with.
Yet, despite a year of negative headlines, the public’s appetite for pro football seems difficult to satiate. Stadiums remain full; fantasy football is a real, thriving money-driver — a salute to the game’s popularity; TV ratings are yet strong; commercial time for the 2015 Super Bowl telecast is fetching record prices; and another champion will soon be crowned.
“The business of the NFL is seemingly as strong as ever: sponsors, partners, advertisers,” Madkour says. “In the larger picture, this hasn’t impacted the NFL.”
Some describe the NFL as an efficient profit-making machine — and it's a machine still humming with success while under some repair.