By Steve Ginsburg and Anjali Athavaley
(Reuters) - Anheuser-Busch publicly chastised the National Football League on Tuesday for its handling of domestic violence cases, making the NFL's official beer sponsor the first major advertiser to put pressure on America's most popular sports league.
In a brief but strongly worded statement, Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser and NFL official beer Bud Light, said it was "disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season.
"We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code."
The company, owned by Belgian-Brazilian group Anheuser-Busch InBev, said it had shared its concerns and expectations with the 32-team league, a TV ratings juggernaut that brings in $9 billion in annual revenue.
"We understand," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said of the Anheuser-Busch remarks. "We are taking action and there will be much more to come."
The rebuke could raise pressure on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, already struggling to make amends after his initial light punishment of former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice for punching his then-girlfriend, now his wife, in February.
The NFL and team owners are also dealing with at least three other domestic abuse cases and a wide swath of Americans are closely watching how they react to mounting public pressure to take forceful measures with players who engage in domestic violence.
PETERSON CASE CRITICIZED
When a security video emerged last week of Rice knocking his wife out cold, Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely and said he had not seen that video when he handed down his original two-game ban in July. He had, however, seen a previous video showing Rice dragging an unconscious Janay Rice out of the elevator.
Goodell apologized for his initial punishment and has since increased the mandatory ban to six games for domestic violence. After the second video emerged and reports that the NFL had seen it, the league ordered an independent investigation into the handling of the Rice case.
Rice, 27, has until midnight ET on Tuesday to appeal his suspension.
Compounding the NFL's problems last week was the indictment of Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back - one of the league's most marketable stars - who has been charged with child abuse in Texas for beating his son with a tree branch.
Peterson was reactivated by the Vikings on Monday after sitting out Sunday's game.
On Tuesday, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton entered the fray by saying the Vikings should sideline Peterson until his case works its way through court.
The Radisson hotel chain said it was suspending a sponsorship deal with the Vikings as it monitors the case.
Two other players involved in domestic violence cases are also under the league's microscope, Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers.
ADVERTISERS MAY HOLD KEY
After the alarming video of Rice's punch surfaced last week, NFL experts said that advertisers could play a pivotal role in whether Goodell survives the worst crisis of his eight-year tenure.
Verizon Communications Chief Executive Lowell McAdam, while acknowledging the Rice episode had been disturbing, gave his backing to Goodell, calling him "a man of high integrity."
But as the controversy moved into the homes of millions of Americans, troubled by what they had seen on the video, Anheuser-Busch's move suggests a changing sentiment among the game's stalwart corporate backers.
"I'm not surprised by it. I think there is such attention of what's going on with the NFL off the field," Brad Adgate, senior vice president, director of research at Horizon Media, an advertising services agency.
The swirling domestic violence scandal has also called into question the NFL's relationship with women, a demographic it has actively wooed. Women now account for 45 percent of the league's audience.
One sponsor geared toward women fans, cosmetics brand Covergirl, said on its Facebook page Monday that "we have encouraged the NFL to take swift action on their path forward to address the issue of domestic violence."
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York and Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Howard Goller, Bernard Orr)