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Editorial: Stumbling NFL needs a moral code

A Cover Girl ad showing use of makeup

A Cover Girl ad showing use of makeup in NFL team colors is doctored to show a woman with a black eye. It was posted on Twitter to highlight the NFL's problem with domestic violence in September 2014. Credit: Twitter

The NFL reigns supreme as the national cathedral of virility and masculinity. So perhaps it's only fitting that it's also become the conduit for a national discussion about domestic violence.

It's a conversation we need to have, one that should not be obscured by the NFL's stunning ineptitude in dealing with the off-the-field transgressions of its players. And it's a conversation that's happening as the country grapples with similar issues of harassment and sexual violence against women in the military and on college campuses. These are tough issues that no longer can be ignored.

For its inability to confront squarely the issue of domestic violence among its players, the NFL is getting blitzed from all sides -- starting with a social media campaign it can't control, a startling development for a league so adept at controlling information, access and its image. Politicians quickly tapped into populist anger and, perhaps most important to the NFL, corporations that sponsor the most successful sports enterprise in the country's history are speaking out.

Anheuser-Busch, whose $1.2-billion deal makes it one of the NFL's biggest sponsors, blasted the league's handling of "behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code." You know you're in trouble when you get lectured on morality by a beer company.

PepsiCo, Visa, McDonald's and Campbell's Soup also criticized the NFL, and the Radisson hotel chain pulled its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings, whose star running back, Adrian Peterson, has been charged with beating his 4-year-old son with a tree branch. This follows the shameful Ray Rice case, in which the former Baltimore Ravens running back was captured on video knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator.

The NFL -- and its teams -- deserve the criticism. Peterson was suspended for last weekend's game, then cleared to play on Sunday, then suspended again Wednesday as public furor grew. Rice initially was suspended two games, a punishment NFL commissioner Roger Goodell later admitted he got wrong, then was suspended indefinitely after the video surfaced and went viral.

The NFL needs to call an audible and start doing the right thing from the get-go, not react to forces buffeting it. And we wish critics also would condemn the occasional on-field hyperviolence glorified by the league and our culture -- behavior that leads to brain damage for 30 percent of players.

It's ironic that the NFL has been trying to lure more women into its fan base, a desire motivated by the marketing and advertising possibilities. A spread in Vogue enticed women to get into the game, and CoverGirl signed on as the league's "official beauty partner." The company launched a series of ads featuring a young woman in makeup coordinated with various team colors -- a message promptly hijacked when altered images of the woman with a black eye took off on Twitter.

Mission accomplished, NFL. You've certainly got more attention from women. Now you need to send a strong and consistent message to women and men that the NFL has a moral code, too.