WASHINGTON (CNN) — The growing outcry over how the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell deal with incidents of domestic violence has reached the nation’s highest office. Even President Barack Obama has seen the footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee.
“The President was shocked by what he saw. Let’s put it that way,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
The incident involving Rice is one of several high-profile scandals involving NFL players that have spurred complaints that the National Football League is too lenient on players.
A few months after the Rice incident, Goodell suspended him without pay and fined him an additional game check. However, after the TMZ Sports video so clearly showed the forceful nature of the punch, Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely.
Last week, the White House addressed the suspension with a statement saying the President believes domestic violence “contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society,” but it wasn’t clear whether he had seen the video of the incident from inside the elevator.
McDonough said the White House wouldn’t at this point try to characterize how the NFL is handling the Rice case. But he did speak generally about Rice’s indefinite suspension.
“We all know that Ray Rice being suspended indefinitely seems to be exactly the right thing,” McDonough said.
Other lawmakers Sunday were far more critical of Goodell and the league.
“I have a feeling there’s a lot of people that know stuff, what went on here,” Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I’m waiting to see if there is a major cover-up, if it shows [Goodell] lies, there could be many factual situations where, in fact, he should step down.”
Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, is one of 16 female senators who sent a letter to Goodell calling on the football league to institute a “real zero-tolerance policy” in such cases.
The NFL announced late Wednesday that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will lead an independent inquiry into the league’s investigation and how it gathered evidence in the case.
“Bob Mueller’s integrity is on the line here, and hopefully he’ll get the facts out,” Klobuchar said of the investigation. “The fact that (the NFL) gave only a two-game suspension and then turn around and after the evidence goes public say, ‘Oh, oh, we made a mistake. Now we’re going to let him go.’ I think that’s problematic for the NFL and deeply concerning about how they handle these kinds of cases.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who also signed the letter to Goodell, had scathing words for the NFL.
“I think the way the NFL handled this was awful. It was outrageous,” Gillibrand told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “They had all the facts they needed. They had a player who admitted to beating his wife. They had video of him dragging her out an elevator. There was nothing left to determine. That player should’ve been fired immediately. So we are now looking to the commissioner to enforce a zero-tolerance policy.”
Gillibrand also said that if Goodell has covered up what he knew about the Rice incident, he should be benched.
“Initially, I want him to lead the reform to actually create and enforce a zero-tolerance policy. But, given the recent debate, you know, if he lied, if he lied to the American people, then he has to step down,” she said, “because he won’t have the force of authority to change how they address these issues.”
Gillibrand said the bipartisan letter from lawmakers to Goodell may be merely the beginning of a broader congressional push for more accountability in the NFL.
“If the NFL doesn’t police themselves, then, you know, we will be looking more into it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have hearings.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, recently told CNN that he would not “rule out” congressional action to force the NFL’s hand on domestic abuse.
In the past, members of Congress have leveraged their titles and hearing rooms to press major U.S. sports leagues to face difficult issues. In 2007, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released the landmark Mitchell Report on steroid use in Major League Baseball.
Household names such as Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were named, and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig responded that the report was a “a call to action, and I will act.” Baseball fans would eventually see both Selig and Clemens, along with baseball titans Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco, testify before Congress.
Outcry over the NFL’s response to the Rice incident has been compounded by two more recent incidents of domestic violence allegedly involving NFL players. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings was indicted last week by a grand jury in Texas on a child abuse charge. Shortly afterward, he was placed on the inactive list for his team.
The Carolina Panthers placed defensive end Greg Hardy on the team’s inactive list in a surprise announcement Sunday, months after he was convicted of a domestic violence charge.
Authorities say Hardy choked his then-girlfriend, threw her around, dragged her by her hair and threatened to kill her. Hardy — 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds — says he is innocent, and he has appealed a July guilty verdict rendered by a Mecklenburg County judge in North Carolina.
Beyond the D.C. Beltway, California’s second most powerful government official has called on the San Francisco 49ers to bench one of its own players involved in a domestic violence investigation.
Ray McDonald, a starting defensive end, was arrested on felony domestic violence charges last month.
“The 49ers’ continued insistence on playing Ray McDonald during his ongoing criminal investigation is a painful affront to every victim of domestic violence and sends a troubling message to our community,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife said in a statement. “We strongly urge the 49er organization we grew up revering to do the right thing — right now — and bench Ray McDonald, pending the outcome of his felony domestic violence investigation by San Jose law enforcement.”
McDonald told CNN affiliate KTVU last month that he couldn’t say much about what happened.
“The truth will come out,” he said. “Everybody knows what kind of person I am … a good-hearted person.”
CNN’s Leigh Ann Caldwell, Mayra Cuevas and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.