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NFL under more scrutiny about Ray Rice investigation as Ravens return to field

As the Ravens prepared to host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, activists and political leaders continued to question the NFL over the investigation of the team's former running back, Ray Rice, and its stance against domestic violence.

Even as the NFL announced a review of its efforts to obtain video footage of Rice striking his then-fiancee, critics assailed the league's choice of former FBI director Robert S. Mueller as an investigator, citing potential conflicts of interest.

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A group of female U.S. senators joined the growing list of influential figures calling for the league to take a stronger stance against domestic violence, while some sponsors of the NFL, including FedEx and Marriott, released statements Thursday saying they were watching developments closely.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continued to face calls for his resignation after the Associated Press reported an anonymous law enforcement source said he'd mailed a copy of the Rice footage to a league official in April, three months before Rice received an initial two-game suspension.

Rice told Goodell in June that he had punched then-fiancee Janay Palmer, according to four unnamed sources cited in an ESPN report. That seemed to contradict Goodell's assertion in interviews this week that Rice's verbal account of the incident was ambiguous. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome told the Baltimore Sun Wednesday that Rice "did not lie to me" about the incident. The police report said that Rice "committed assault by striking her with his hand rendering her unconscious."

The Rice story created a tense and unique backdrop for a game that was important to the Ravens in pure football terms. After a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, an announced sellout crowd of 71,181 badly wanted to see their team defeat Pittsburgh. But talk of the fierce rivalry was scarce all week as a nation of football lovers instead focused on fallout from TMZ's release of the Rice video.

Outside of M&T Bank Stadium, the number of people wearing Rice jerseys had declined, fans said, but Brandon Pindell and Lauren Brown, both from Bel Air, walked hand-in-hand into the stadium in their their No. 27 shirts Thursday. They said the Rice jerseys were the only Ravens jerseys they owned. Despite how the situation surrounding Rice played out recently, Brown said she "would have worn it anyway."

The Ravens issued about 700 media credentials for the game, more than twice as many as for Sunday's opener. CBS altered its pre-game coverage, dropping planned football discussion, a Rihanna song and a comedic segment in favor of an interview with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and analysis from Norah O'Donnell, who interviewed Goodell on Tuesday.

Bisciotti told CBS he did not want Goodell to resign. "I believe Roger when he says he never saw [the video]," the Ravens owner said. "If the allegation is true that it got to the league office, then somebody is negligent in not getting that to Roger. I've known Roger for 14 years and he's dedicated his life to the NFL and as a man, I can't believe that he saw that video and gave a two-game suspension."

The NFL announced late Wednesday night that it had appointed Mueller to investigate the league's handling of evidence in the Rice case and to issue a public report. The league said New York Giants owner John Mara and Steelers owner Art Rooney II would oversee the investigation.

But those choices quickly came under scrutiny because Mara and Rooney are close to Goodell and Mueller works for the law firm WilmerHale, which employed Ravens president Dick Cass for 30 years and recently helped the NFL negotiate a multi-billion-dollar deal with DirecTV.

National Organization of Women president Terry O'Neill, who had earlier called for Goodell's resignation, dismissed the Mueller investigation as "just window dressing."

"Mr. Mueller assured us that his investigation will be thorough and independent, and that he will keep us informed of his progress," Mara and Rooney said in a joint statement. "Our sole motive here is to get the truth and then share Mr. Mueller's findings with the public."

The owners said Mueller is ready to begin his investigation immediately. There is no timetable for the investigation, but the NFL said the findings will be made public.

Senators not satisfied

Meanwhile, 16 female U.S. senators, including Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, sent a letter to the league, calling for a "real zero-tolerance policy" against domestic violence.

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In addition to expressing disgust over the footage of Rice released Monday, the senators wrote that they weren't satisfied with stricter penalties the league announced recently, which would include a six-game penalty for first offenders and a possible lifetime ban for repeat offenders.

"We are deeply concerned that the NFL's new policy, announced last month, would allow a player to commit a violent act against a woman and return after a short suspension," they wrote. "If you violently assault a woman, you shouldn't get a second chance to play football in the NFL. The NFL's current policy sends a terrible message to players, fans and all Americans that even after committing a horrific act of violence, you can quickly be back on the field."

National scrutiny seemed to shift away from the Ravens, two days after Bisciotti wrote a letter of apology to sponsors, PSL holders and suite owners, explaining why the team cut short its investigation of Rice's actions.

While the national sponsors like FedEx and Marriott indicated that they were waiting to see if the NFL takes appropriate steps with the investigation, local sponsors have stood by the Ravens so far.

"Through the years, we have worked with a number of individuals in the Ravens organization who have made significant contributions to the community — in many ways, every day," said Ann C. Nickels, a spokeswoman for MedStar Health. "We hope something good can come of this terrible incident, through heightened awareness of domestic violence and significantly more help for its victims."

Melanie Ortel, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said in a statement: "Verizon Wireless is a sponsor of the Baltimore Ravens organization, not individual players."

Howe Burch, president of the Baltimore-based advertising company TBC, said the likelihood of advertisers severing ties with the NFL "depends on how the story progresses with the NFL and where it all leads."

"But I think absolutely it's possible for major sponsors to begin to pull back on their relationship with the NFL if this situation is not resolved to everyone's satisfaction," he said.

If advertisers pull out, the public perception would hurt the league more than the loss of money, Burch said. He called the situation unprecedented for the NFL.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like this as it relates to a league," Burch said. "It's remarkable how big this story has become. When it's the lead story on the nightly news, the national news, it's pretty serious. The NFL has typically been immune from any kind of controversy to this extent. And I think they are in unchartered waters."

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Fans weigh in

Before the game, Ravens fan Erik Cartwright noted distinctly fewer No. 27s among the purple-clad hordes swilling light beer and grilling under highway overpasses.

"That's the only thing different," the 32-year-old Ravens fan said of the game-night atmosphere.

"It doesn't matter," said his buddy, Steelers fan Steve Jerne Jr. "It's Pittsburgh versus Baltimore. No fans are not going to come because Ray Rice hit his wife."

For all the horror expressed over Rice's actions in recent days, some fans still wore his No. 27 jersey to Thursday's game.

"I think there's other players that have done way worse, and they're still here so why not support him?" said Roy Ober of Baltimore. "We need him back anyway. I think they already punished him for the two games about the same issue, so why go further when they've seen something that's already happened? He's part of the team, he always will be."

Ravens fan Zack Ulrich wore a black Rice jersey and said he'd gotten a lot of strange looks. "I do support Ray Rice," he said. "I think it's something between him and his wife. If she wants to pursue it, that's their decision. It's not the public's opinion, it's theirs. It's their family."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Colin Campbell, Alison Knezevich and Jon Meoli contributed to this article.

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