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Turbulent Season Puts The NFL On Notice


The NFL playoffs begin this weekend, promising a new dramatic chapter in the pro football season. Of course, a lot of drama this year happened off the field. Stories about the behavior of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson led to new discussions about old and difficult issues - domestic violence, child abuse, corporal punishment. This has been, in many ways, a watershed season. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In the year and a half Judy Battista has worked for NFL.com and the NFL Network, in the nearly 15 years before that covering the NFL for the New York Times, she has used a gazillion words to describe the league. Battista only needs one to explain the 2014 season.


GOLDMAN: It was, she says, unlike any season she can remember. Yes, the NFL has had its non-football crises - the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal, players involved with murder and drugs, work stoppages prompted by warring players and owners. But Battista says parts, or even all of those crises unfolded during the off-season.

BATTISTA: I think what's made this one unique is that it's run concurrently with the games.

GOLDMAN: The regular season began September 4, September 8 the video was release of Baltimore Ravens' running back Ray Rice punching his fiancee. September 12, Adrian Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges. From then on, a mix of weekend football and weekday chatter - much of it on sports talk radio, much of it not about sports.


COLIN COWHERD: I said this is disgusting, but it goes way beyond Ray Rice. We have a problem in society with violence.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But maybe we should learn something from this. Maybe the days of beating a kid with a switch - or any other object - is out.

GOLDMAN: On the air, in homes, at workplaces, the conversations and anger flowed, perhaps because the nation already was reflecting on a game it had been closely scrutinizing. The concussion issue made us wonder about football. It made us mad to hear reports the league may have covered up what it knew about the long-term effects of brain injury. Then it made us mad again when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell bungled his way through the early stages of this season's crisis, the widely criticized initial two-game suspension for Ray Rice, the press conference in which Goodell issued a mea culpa.


ROGER GOODELL: I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter and I'm sorry for that.

GOLDMAN: That hardly quelled the anger. There was criticism even as Goodell tried to make the right moves. He appointed an advisory group of women to help develop new domestic violence policies for the NFL - good. But it was an advisory group on domestic violence that didn't include African-American women - bad. Melanie Campbell had had the Black Women's Roundtable.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: The faces of this are black women, mostly - at this point anyway, black families - and you have all white women external advisors. It just didn't make any sense.

GOLDMAN: A lot about the league's behavior in 2014 didn't make sense and didn't matter, ultimately, to many of the millions who kept going to and watching NFL games.

GENE HUSHAK: The seriousness of the topic, yes, it was a big deal.

GOLDMAN: But not necessarily the league's big deal, says Gene Hushak. He's president of the Seattle Seahawks biggest fan club, the Sea Hawkers.

HUSHAK: I personally don't see it - or any of the circles that I run in see it as being a huge NFL issue as much as it was a domestic violence issue.

GOLDMAN: The distinction that it's more a societal problem than the league's is part of the reason attendance and ratings remain high. Still, this turbulent season has put the league on notice. And Commissioner Goodell has responded by announcing a revised personal conduct policy, a new mandatory anti-domestic violence training and education program for all league employees, which is underway, and by appointing an African-American woman to that advisory group, leaving Melanie Campbell feeling optimistic.

CAMPBELL: We appreciate the fact that they are trying to get it right.

GOLDMAN: After a season of so much wrong. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.