The guilty verdict in the murder trial against ex-Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez caps off a tumultuous year for the NFL. The league has been forced to defend itself against off-the-field scandals — and a barrage of bad press.
While it was widely anticipated Hernandez would be found guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder, his continuing legal saga is certain to leave a black mark on the league in the months to come, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
"While many have already digested all the news surrounding Hernandez for quite some time, the verdict does revisit the narrative that the NFL has been facing the highest-profile crises of just about any American business of late," Carter told NBC News.
"The key for the NFL is to continue to state and then restate its approach to off-the-field matters and remind everyone, whether football fans or not, what the NFL shield truly stands for and represents," he added.
The NFL, for its part, has been trying to move past the controversies plaguing the league — although those sore spots don't seem to be going away anytime soon. Here's a look at some of the controversies:
Perhaps the most damaging incident to the NFL last year was the release of a video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice slugging his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino in February 2014.
Rice, 28, was initially suspended for only two games before the video was leaked publicly, and it eventually led the Ravens to drop him permanently. Rice in November won an appeal against the league to suspended him indefinitely.
"There is no excuse for domestic violence, and I apologize for the horrible mistake I made," he said in a statement in February after settling with his former team for lost pay.
He is now free to sign with any team that wants him.
The one-time Most Valuable Player for the Minnesota Vikings pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault for whipping his 4-year-old son. After his indictment in September, Peterson was suspended through the rest of the season.
Peterson appealed the decision, and a judge in February ruled that he should be reinstated despite the NFL's suspending him.
The 30-year-old running back could be considered for reinstatement starting Wednesday, according to NBC Sports, although there's no guarantee NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will decide to take up the issue.
Peterson, considered one of the league's best, could end up staying with the Vikings, and members of the team said this month they want him to return for next season.
The NFL commissioner was blasted for his handling of the Rice controversy but he refused to step down despite saying how "humiliating" the year was for him.
Under intense pressure over Rice and other similar cases, he oversaw the creation of a domestic violence policy and toughened the league's disciplinary rules against players who are involved in such charges — they are initially suspended for six games without pay.
The league last season also created a team of female leaders to shape its domestic violence policy.
Vinnie Iyer, who covers the NFL for SportingNews.com, said the league can rise above these personnel setbacks and scandals.
"Just as we've seen with violent player cases both equally and less grievous (as Hernandez's), the league's enduring connection is the entire product," Iyer said, adding that the setbacks are a "temporary stain" to the beloved brand that remains the NFL.
NFL rookie Chris Borland made a stunning announcement last month when he announced he was giving up his position as a linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers because he didn't want to risk long-term brain injury.
"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," he first told ESPN's "Outside the Lines." "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."
The announcement found support from other players who said that they, too, worry about their health. But NFL officials were quick to say that they have made player safety a priority.
"By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players," Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety policy, said in a statement.
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