NFL, Sponsors Feel Pressure After Ray Rice Video Surfaces

As sponsors cut ties with Ray Rice, the National Football League is facing mounting criticism over its handling of an incident involving the former Baltimore Ravens running back.

In July, the NFL suspended Rice for two games after a security camera inside an Atlantic City, N.J., casino captured the player dragging his then-fiancée, Janay, out of an elevator.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologized last week for sidelining Rice for just two games, saying he “didn't get it right.” He also announced changes to the NFL’s personal conduct policy to implement harsher penalties for domestic abuse.

But on Monday, video from inside the elevator showed Rice hitting his wife. The 27-year old, who signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension in 2012, was subsequently cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the league.

The new video reignited criticism over the league’s initial punishment for Rice, with some wondering if Goodell should resign as commissioner. There have also been calls for the NFL to revamp how it handles disciplinary action. Goodell is the sole executive in charge of suspending players for personal conduct.

During an interview with CBS, Goodell reiterated that the NFL did not see the second video until Monday, despite asking for access to it. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti wrote in a letter to fans that the casino and New Jersey police denied requests to provide the tape.

Goodell, who took charge of the NFL in 2006, was also asked if he should lose his job.

“No, I’m used to the criticism,” he said. “Every day, I have to earn my stripes. Every day, I have to do a better job.”

Neal Pilson, who once served as president of CBS Sports, suggested that Goodell and other NFL executives understand they fumbled the Rice situation.

“It’s a serious black eye for the league and for Roger. Looking back on it, the league should have insisted on seeing the tape,” said Pilson, the founder and president of Pilson Communications. “I think if Roger had seen the tape, the penalties would have been far more severe.”

Pilson also noted how the NFL would be better off replicating the disciplinary process used by other major sports leagues, which have separate executives in charge of suspensions. The commissioner gets involved only if players appeal the decision.

Rice Loses Endorsements

Sponsors reacted quickly to the latest video evidence. Sports apparel giant Nike (NYSE:NKE), which makes jerseys for NFL teams, said it’s no longer working with Rice. Electronic Arts (NYSE:EA) announced that Rice will be removed from the company’s Madden NFL 15 video game.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are offering an exchange for Rice jerseys. His alma mater, Rutgers University, is removing images of Rice from the school’s football stadium.

“This one is a bit of a no-brainer,” said Kevin Adler, the president and founder of Engage Marketing, when asked about the decision by sponsors to cut ties with Rice.

Adler believes Rice will face an uphill battle if he wants to get back on the field, saying Michael Vick’s return to the NFL should be an anomaly. Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal charges over his involvement in a dog fighting ring. He was back in the NFL about two years later with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rice pleaded not guilty to aggravated-assault charges. He entered a pretrial intervention program, and the charges will be dropped if Rice completes the program.

Will Goodell Survive Criticism?

The NFL’s credibility has also taken a hit, but historically, “the NFL has been bulletproof, for lack of better term, as far as their reputation,” Adler explained. “People will still attend games and buy merchandise.”

According to the NFL, 205 million people tuned in last year. That represents 81% of all television homes in the U.S. The 2013 season averaged 17.6 million viewers per game, the second most-watched season after 2010.

Pilson doesn’t expect any sponsors to end their partnerships with the popular sports league.

“The American public understands that players, owners and coaches get into difficulty, and some of it is extremely serious,” Pilson said. “The appeal of the NFL continues. This isn’t the first time the league got a decision wrong.”

While criticism targeting Goodell has grown this week, Adler said his job is likely safe as long as the commissioner continues to restore trust in the NFL.

“I don’t think he’s as bulletproof as the league, but Goodell is in a position to take some important steps from a brand reputation perspective. They’ve been going in that direction over the past couple days,” he remarked.