Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens is pulled down by the face mask by free safety Mike Mitchell #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 11, 2014 in Baltimore.
Patrick Smith—Getty Images
By Sean Gregory
September 12, 2014

Thursday night was the true test. A nation was disgusted with the NFL. At best, the league’s leader, Roger Goodell, was wholly incompetent in his handling of the Ray Rice mess. At worst, he’s lying about the way the NFL conducted the Rice investigation. No matter what, the world had just seen one of the league’s most prominent players punch his fiancée on video. And Rice played for the Baltimore Ravens, the team featured on CBS’ first Thursday night NFL broadcast. The Ravens hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And those Ravens, remember, had been tone-deaf to the horrors of domestic violence. Whether or not the team saw the tape of Rice’s assault before Monday — in a pre-game interview, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told CBS that he hadn’t — the team knew, months ago, that Rice struck Janay Palmer during their February altercation. Most employees would have been fired after committing such an offense. Instead, the Ravens staged a press conference with Rice and Palmer, and tweeted out that Palmer– now Rice’s wife — “deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” After the NFL suspended Rice for a mere two games in July, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Rice a “heck of a guy.” A Ravens PR staffer went out of his way to sing Rice’s praises.

So if there was any night for the American public to shun the NFL, it was last night. Ravens-Steelers.

But now, the returns are in. And as always, the NFL wins.

And wins big. “THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL” ON CBS AND NFL NETWORK MORE THAN DOUBLES OPENING NIGHT RATINGS FROM A YEAR AGO, screamed a Friday press release. The twofold ratings increase of the Steelers-Ravens game, compared to the New York Jets-New England Patriots game on September 12, 2013, is impressive, though somewhat misleading. This year’s Thursday night game was shown on both CBS and the NFL Network, while Jets-Pats was only broadcast on the NFL Network. Double the channels, double the ratings.

What’s more salient: the game gave CBS its best Thursday prime-time numbers since May of 2006.

The NFL has failed leadership. The NFL has behavior problems. The NFL enjoys a federal tax-exemption it doesn’t deserve. The NFL milks the public out of money for stadiums. The NFL turned its back on concussions. It may have enabled painkiller abuse. The NFL supports a racist team nickname.

But the NFL is no political entity, no leader. The NFL is a beloved product. The NFL has passes and catches and tackles and gambling and fantasy leagues. The NFL spurs parties and beer-drinking and man caves.

Roger Goodell may get booted. More players will likely break the law. But these developments won’t affect the NFL one bit. Because even during one of the league’s worst hours, the votes kept rolling in.

They won’t stop.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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