By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - A major advertiser expressed support for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday, while a women's advocacy group called for his resignation in the mounting controversy over his handling of former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice's domestic violence case.
The NFL late on Wednesday named former FBI Director Robert Mueller III to lead an inquiry into how the league dealt with evidence in the case, particularly security video from an elevator showing Rice knocking out his then-fiancee and now-wife Janay Palmer with a punch.
While Goodell said the NFL never saw the tape until it was released by the TMZ website on Monday, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that a law enforcement official said he had the tape delivered to league offices in April.
It is still unclear how long Mueller will need for the investigation, leaving a cloud over the NFL at the start of a new season. But in a league with annual revenues of $9 billion, the response of advertisers to the mounting pressures on Goodell could be key to his future.
Verizon Communications Chief Executive Lowell McAdam, while acknowledging the Rice episode has been disturbing, gave his backing to Goodell, calling him "a man of high integrity."
McAdam, addressing a conference on Thursday, said he did not believe "there is some conspiracy to cover this up."
The NFL's decision to order an investigation also could alleviate some tension around the scandal, one of the biggest to hit the powerful league in years.
"The NFL needs a quick credibility fix and this is the beginning of it," Rick Horrow, a sports business consultant and lecturer at Harvard Law School, told Reuters.
"From Roger Goodell to every owner, they are very clear on one thing: they want to know, absolutely, the bottom line of this. It's an NFL issue but it's also a sports and business issue and a societal watershed."
WOMEN FANS AT STAKE
Rice was initially suspended for two games after a security tape from February at the Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino showed him pulling an unconscious Palmer from the elevator.
When the second tape surfaced this week showing Rice punching Palmer, the Ravens released the veteran running back and the league suspended him indefinitely.
National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill on Thursday called for the immediate resignation of Goodell, who has been the NFL's commissioner since 2006.
"He just cannot credibly, at this point, commit to making the kinds of changes at the NFL we think need to be made," she told Reuters. "Mr. Goodell is trying to do the very least he can get away with to make this issue go away."
She said Goodell's original two-game suspension of Rice "sends a signal to the world that 'we don't take domestic violence seriously.'"
O'Neill also pushed for "a top-to-bottom review" of the NFL's response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Goodell serves at the behest of the NFL team owners and there is no sign they have lost confidence in him. The Mueller investigation will be overseen by owners John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, both Goodell supporters who have long-time ties to the league.
"Advertisers need to get out ahead and be very mindful of public opinion," said Horrow, who has consulted for the NFL in the past. "Forty-one percent of the avid NFL fans are women.
"This a major emotional issue for all men and women. If this is not handled correctly, clearly advertisers and therefore television contracts are at risk."
(Additional reporting by Christian Plumb; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott)