Problems have been stacking up this season on the NFL's horizon like planes in a holding pattern: investigations, arbitrations, suspensions, lawsuits and plea deals that shamed both an owner and a high-profile star.
It's been a turbulent season so far by almost any measure — save for the most important one: Business has rarely been better.
Despite smoldering anger over Commissioner Roger Goodell's bungling of the Ray Rice domestic-violence case, as well as the way some teams responded when their players ran afoul of the law, no one has bailed on the NFL. The sponsors who raised very public concerns two months ago have slipped quietly back into the fold. The politicians and women-rights advocates who expressed outrage have largely fallen silent. And the fans?
The numbers speak for themselves.
At the halfway point of the season, leaguewide attendance at stadiums is on pace to better last year's per-game average of 68,867 (a five-year high), with 20 of the 32 teams reporting increases, according to STATS. TV ratings, too, are equal to or better than last year's average of 18.4 million viewers for nationally televised games — including 6.3 million females, according to Nielsen.
Keep in mind, those ratings numbers exclude Thursday night games, usually carried by the NFL Network, for purposes of comparison. Yet if any one game figured to be the focus of fans' ire as a second video surfaced in the Rice case, it was the Sept 11 game at Baltimore against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, more than a few of the locals — male and female, young and old — turned up for the game wearing Rice's No. 27 Ravens jersey and CBS recorded its best prime-time Thursday since 2006.
"The relative quiet at the moment is because the process has taken over," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp, referring to a handful of NFL initiatives to make its disciplinary process more equitable and transparent. "The people in charge said they want to get to the bottom of this, and most of the people who follow the NFL are willing to give them some time to do that."
But the fans' patience, as well as a seemingly bottomless appetite for pro football, could be tested again in the coming months.
Earlier this week, Goodell, along with Rice and his wife, testified in front of an arbitrator who will decide whether the commissioner overstepped his authority by extending his original two-game suspension of Rice to an indefinite one shortly after the release of the video. Separately, the NFL hired former FBI director Robert Mueller III to examine how the league handled and pursued evidence in the Rice case, although a date for the release of that report has not been set.
In the meantime, the league has several other pending disciplinary matters.
On Thursday it launched a formal review into the case of Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who two days earlier pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault. Peterson was originally charged with felony child abuse for disciplining his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch. After being excoriated over the Rice case the first time, Goodell announced a tougher policy on domestic violence, requiring a six-game suspension without pay for a first offense. Peterson sat out the Vikings home opener, and has not returned to the field since.
San Francisco's Ray McDonald, on the other hand, has continued playing following his arrest on suspicion of domestic felony abuse more than a month ago. That came after reports police found bruises on the neck and arms of his pregnant fiancee. The results of a police investigation were turned over this week to prosecutors, who will decide whether to bring charges.
Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy was banished to the commissioner's "exempt list" after playing in the season opener for Carolina, and has been effectively benched for the remainder of this season after his trial on assaulting his former girlfriend and threatening to kill her was pushed back to 2015. Hardy was found guilty of the charges by a judge in July, before requesting a trial by jury.
Four other players arrested since August on charges ranging from misdemeanor theft to assault could also wind up facing disciplinary action. Colts owner Jim Irsay has already served a six-game suspension imposed after he pleaded guilty in September to driving while intoxicated.
And all that is in addition to two lawsuits the league is involved with. It's still working to complete a $765 million class-action settlement reached more than a year ago over allegations by thousands of former players that the NFL concealed the risk of concussions. A report prepared for the federal judge handling that case in Philadelphia included actuarial data recently released by the NFL estimating that nearly three in 10 former players will develop debilitating brain conditions, and that they will be stricken earlier and at least twice as often as the general population.
In a lawsuit originally filed in May, more than 1,500 former players claimed that NFL teams routinely — and often illegally — doled out powerful prescription painkillers and other drugs with few safeguards for decades. A judge hearing that case in San Francisco said he wanted to hear from the players union before making a decision on the league's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.