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Senate calls on pro sports to 'step up' domestic violence fight

A Senate panel condemned major American professional sports leagues Tuesday for not adequately addressing the issues of domestic violence,

A Senate panel condemned major American professional sports leagues Tuesday for not adequately addressing the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault by athletes on the same day embattled ex-NFL star Ray Rice attempted to rebuild his image in a high-profile “TODAY” interview alongside his wife, Janay.

The couple made headlines throughout the fall after footage was released showing Rice knocking out his then-fiancée in an elevator. The incident led to Rice's indefinite suspension from the NFL and increased scrutiny over the league’s policies on domestic violence.

Rice’s suspension has been reversed on appeal, and he is currently seeking a deal with a new team. The Baltimore Ravens cut the Pro Bowl running back amid the controversy in September. In the meantime, lawmakers in Washington are focusing on what is arguably the most popular sport in America.

“There was an enormous amount of pressure for us not to have this hearing,” said retiring West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chaired the hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “We went ahead with it anyway.”

Senators from both sides of the aisle called out representatives of the NFL, NBA, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball on their lack of significant investigations and discipline when it came to violence perpetrated by their star players.

RELATED: Ray Rice speaks out: ‘I’m horribly sorry for everything'

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, railed against pro sports leagues, which she said have “done little” to address a “problem that exists in the shadows in a very dark and scary place.” While acknowledging that the influence of professional sports may be the greatest of any institution in the country, McCaskill challenged them to stop simply relying on the criminal justice system to resolve their problems. Republican Sen. Dean Heller was also highly critical of the organizations. “When you’re worrying more about getting back on the field instead of stopping abuse, your priorities are out of order,” he said in his opening remarks.

"The American people need you to step up,” an indignant Heller added.

None of the major sports’ commissioners or team owners appeared in person, which drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. “Given the scope and severity of this problem, I find their absence troubling,” said Rockefeller.

“They were asked to be here and leadership starts at the top,” added New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. “I think that does say something about how big a commitment there is on this.”

RELATED: Why Ray Rice will likely get picked up again

Lawmakers also came down harshly on players' unions, which frequently cite efforts to address conduct policies in the collective bargaining agreement process. Ayotte called a remark from an NBA players' union representative on Jeffery Taylor's suspension for domestic violence "disgusting." The rep had said the Hornets player's suspension was "excessive."

Troy Vincent, a former NFL player who currently serves as executive vice president of football operations for the league, delivered tearful remarks in which he detailed his own personal exposure to the abuse of his mother when he was a child. “I relate to the 20 million victims, survivors of domestic abuse in this great nation,” said Vincent, who acknowledged that pro football has “made mistakes” but said the league is actively working to improve.

Vincent insisted that the majority of NFL players “are terrific husbands” and emphatically stated, “We believe wearing the uniform of an NFL player is a privilege, not a right.” He went on to outline myriad educational and therapeutic programs the NFL is promoting in the aftermath of the RIce scandal.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, was proactive on the issue of privilege. He pointed out how sports teams enjoy tax breaks and subsidies. He said lawmakers should “end the blank check for the leagues  -- the antitrust exemption” if there isn’t any real reform or accountability on domestic violence and sexual assault. Baseball is not tax exempt, but the NFL is. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, a former college football player himself, pressed Vincent on this point, going so far as to suggest that if the NFL “should not enjoy” a tax exempt status, to save taxpayers money and to invest in domestic violence prevention.

RELATED: Ray Rice wins appeal of his NFL suspension

As the Senate debates pro sports policy and its shortcomings, Rice is in the process of trying to redeem his image. On “TODAY” Rice told host Matt Lauer he was “horribly sorry” for the pain and shame he inflicted on his wife and family. During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, admitted that his young son, an aspiring running back, "looked up to" Rice. And Rubio talked about the heartbreak of explaining to his son why Rice was not currently playing professional football.

In order to sign him, Rice said a NFL franchise “would have to be willing to, you know, look deeper into who I am and realize that me and my wife had one bad night and I took full responsibility for it.”