When 2014 began, much of the focus of the new football season was on Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted by the National Football League (NFL). Sam's widely accepted presence in the NFL cast a positive light on the league. However, by the time the 2014 season began in September, the NFL was involved in several controversies, including multiple players indicted with charges ranging from aggravated assault to child abuse, a renewed push to rename the Washington Redskins, and an owner banned from his team. Some critics even called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign.
Didn't Get it Right
On Feb. 15, 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested for hitting his fiancée, Janay Palmer, in the face, which knocked her unconscious. The following month, Rice was indicted on third-degree aggravated assault and faced a three to five year jail sentence. The day after his indictment, Palmer married Rice.
In response to the indictment, on July 25, the NFL suspended Rice for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season. However, at the end of August, Goodell held a press conference announcing a new league policy on domestic violence, including longer suspensions for players in the future. Answering to criticism for Rice's two game suspension, Goodell stated that he "didn't get it right."
Then, on Sept. 8, 2014, TMZ released video footage from an elevator camera that captured Rice punching Palmer. TMZ's video release renewed criticism that Goodell and the NFL's initial suspension of Rice had been too lenient. The NFL responded by saying that no one in the league had seen the video before Rice's two game suspension. After the release of the video, the Baltimore Ravens terminated Rice's contract and the league suspended him indefinitely.
Calls for Goodell to Resign
Many journalists and political leaders, including U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, called for Goodell to resign. During a CBS News interview on Sept. 9, Goodell reiterated that no one in the NFL had access to the video prior to Rice's initial suspension. However, the following day, the Associated Press published a report that a copy of the tape had been sent to a league official in April 2014.
On Sept. 14, the Carolina Panthers placed defensive end Greg Hardy on their inactive list. In July, Hardy had been convicted of choking and threatening to kill his then-girlfriend. Despite the conviction, Hardy wasn't suspended by the NFL. The league didn't punish Hardy for domestic abuse, but did inform him at the start of the season that his face painting was in violation of league rules.
Former MVP Indicted for Child Abuse
On Sept. 12, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted by a Texas grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. According to the indictment, Peterson whipped his son with a tree branch. Soon after the indictment, TMZ posted photos on their website of Peterson's four-year-old son's legs with slash marks from being whipped by a switch. A former league MVP, Peterson was deactivated for one game by the Vikings. However, the team reactivated Peterson the following week, a move that led to criticism and further fallout. Mylan Inc. ended their endorsement deal with Peterson. Nike pulled Peterson's jerseys from its stores. Then a second accusation surfaced involving Peterson abusing another son.
After the second abuse claim surfaced, the Vikings announced that Peterson was deactivated from the team indefinitely. He was placed on the Exempt Commissioner's Permission List which required him to stay away from all team activities while under investigation. On Nov. 4, Peterson pled no contest to the charge of misdemeanor reckless assault of a child in Texas. Two weeks later, the NFL banned Peterson for the rest of the year, citing the league's new conduct policy, which calls for a six-game suspension for first time domestic abuse offenders.
Peterson wasn't reinstated until April 2015 even though a federal court overturned the NFL's suspension of him in Feb. 2015. The court ruled that the NFL had incorrectly punished Peterson, but the NFL appealed the court's decision so that Peterson would have to serve his full suspension. Peterson was allowed to return to the Vikings on April 17.
The ongoing Washington Redskins name controversy also heated up in 2014. On June 18, in a 2-1 decision, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ruled that some of the trademark protections of the Washington Redskins were invalid and stated that the use of the team name "Redskins" constituted an ethnic slur. A month before the ruling, Senator Harry Reid and 49 other Democratic senators asked Goodell to push the Redskins owners to change the name. Earlier in 2013, President Obama said he would consider changing the name if he were the owner.
Despite the ruling, the team was not required to change its name. In fact, team owners planned to appeal the decision, stating that they have no intention of changing the name. However, should they not win an appeal and the decision be upheld, counterfeiters could manufacture knockoff Washington Redskins merchandise.
More Arrests & Headlines
By September, the arrests, indictments, and controversies surrounding the league overshadowed the games. Each week brought more arrests. San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic violence only three days after Goodell announced the league's new policy. McDonald continued to play for the 49ers after his arrest. On Sept. 17, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested over two aggravated assault incidents. According to the police, the two incidents involved a 27-year-old woman and their 18-month old son. The Cardinals acted quickly, deactivating Dwyer the same day he was arrested.
Meanwhile, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was sitting out the first six weeks of the season due to an arrest earlier in the year for driving under the influence and four counts of possession of a controlled substance. The NFL responded by banning Irsay from his team for the first six games of the season and fining him $500,000.
On Sept. 19, Goodell held a press conference to apologize for the way he and the league had handled the domestic violence incidents. Meanwhile, the subject of NFL'S feel good story of the year, Michael Sam was cut on Aug. 30 by the St. Louis Rams, the team that drafted him. The following week, the Dallas Cowboys added Sam to their practice squad, but that news quickly took a backseat. Then, on Oct. 21, the Cowboys cut Sam from the practice squad, which made him a free agent and ended that story for now.
On Nov. 28, Judge Barbara Jones ruled that the NFL and Commissioner Goodell had no new evidence in Sept. when they increased Ray Rice's suspension. Therefore, Rice won his appeal and could be reinstated to the NFL. The league accepted Jones' decision, but it was unclear if a team would sign Rice.
Lawsuit, DEA Investigation and Hernandez Trial
That same month, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents made unannounced visits to multiple teams as part of an investigation on whether their medical staffs were mishandling prescription drugs. The investigation was due to a lawsuit filed earlier in the year by former players that claimed the NFL, its teams, medical staff, and trainers acted without regard for players' health by handing out prescription painkillers to hide the pain and maximize playing time.
The case and trial of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez dominated headlines throughout 2014 and 2015. Once considered one of the best tight ends in the NFL, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder on April 15, 2015. Hernandez, age 25, was sentenced to life in prison. The jury deliberated for 36 hours before deciding that he was guilty of killing Odin Lloyd, a landscaper who dated the sister of Hernandez's fiancée. Hernandez was also found guilty on five firearm charges. He had been released from the New England Patriots since June 26, 2013, the day he was arrested.
As 2015 progressed, it was too soon to tell what the DEA investigation would lead to or if the league's new domestic abuse policy and the female advisers brought in to help implement that policy would have any impact. However, stories off the field continued to dominate the NFL. The NFL made headlines again in May 2015, when the league suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games due to an investigation which found "substantial and credible evidence" that Brady knew the team's employees were deflating footballs. Some found Brady's suspension severe, especially given how other players, such as Ray Rice, were penalized for bigger crimes.