The NFL’s Problem

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Approximately nine years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found himself a good pick and shovel, and hacked his way through the tough outer skin of the NFL shield. He dug holes to the appropriate depth and placed into them something he did not understand. Then he shoveled some dirt back on top — a little at a time for nearly a decade — and congratulated himself on being full of foresight, wisdom and leadership.

Driven by the best of intentions, Goodell unwittingly planted a field of public relations land mines when he appointed himself chief prosecutor, judge and appellate court magistrate of a vague “personal conduct” initiative to clean up the NFL. In the classic mold of ready-fire-aim leaders throughout history, Goodell decided that the only way to rein in the NFL’s “out of control” players was with the firm guidance of suspensions and official condemnation of the Commissioner’s Office.

Goodell had fallen victim to a classic PR blunder: he believed the media. In some ways, his faith in the media was logical. There was a steady diet of media reports of off-field misdeeds. There was racial code word murmuring about broken homes and young men coming from “inner cities” or from “poverty.” Why, they just needed the stern hand of a Moral Authority, and who better than Goodell himself? So, Goodell cooked up a bold and aggressive fix to a problem that did not exist.

Had Goodell ordered a meaningful examination of the off-field behavior of NFL players, he’d have found they were overwhelmingly a responsible, law-abiding bunch. The data has been crunched by several different outlets — feel free to Google up your pick of them — and they show in different ways the same thing. Specifically, NFL players get arrested far less frequently than the general population, and far, FAR less often than males in the same general age group.

While players often are portrayed as if they’re pirates or bandits marauding through the nation’s peaceful streets, reality is that the NFL arrest rate is about 13% that of males age 25-29 in America. This is a good news story about NFL players, not reason for serial consternation.

The NFL’s biggest off-field problem is domestic violence — but even that is a relative success story. The NFL arrest rate for domestic violence is 55% that of males age 25-29, which means NFL players are considerably less likely to be involved in domestic violence than their age-group cohorts. It’s laudable that Goodell and the NFL are taking steps to address the issue, though it would be more credible if it wasn’t so clearly a panic move. Most reasonable people would agree that even one case is too many. Even panic moves can sometimes be a good thing, and if the league’s efforts further reduces the number of domestic violence incidents…then good.

Back to my point, what Goodell failed to grasp when he appointed himself The Moral Authority was that he was feeding the stereotype monster. Big problems require bold solutions. Ergo, a bold solution means a big problem. So, in the public’s mind, Goodell’s long suspensions and hefty fines were because player behavior really was out of control. If even the Commissioner was acknowledging a big problem with the behavior of NFL players, the problem must have been MASSIVE. Unfortunately, Goodell’s strategy of administering “justice” wasn’t cleaning up a problem (player behavior was at least as good, if not better, than could be expected), it was exacerbating the perception of NFL players as a bunch of lawless thugs.

Had Goodell understood the league’s perception problem, he could have used the NFL’s influence with the sports media to introduce a different narrative that provided balance and context when the inevitable off-field incident occurred. (And yes, such incidents are inevitable as long as the NFL uses actual people to play the games.) The NFL could have used the data to show not just that NFL players are overwhelmingly responsible, law-abiding citizens, but that they’re MORE responsible and law-abiding than the average citizen. This makes a ton of sense considering some of the attributes that make a person elite at anything (including playing football): discipline, intelligence and hard work.

The perception that the NFL has a behavior problem is borne of this simple reality: there’s no beat reporter for waiters or bellmen or mechanics or bloggers or journalists or…you get the point. There are hundreds of reporters covering the NFL on a daily basis. Hundreds more commentate, opine and do part-time reporting. Those reporters uncover a wealth of information, and dutifully report it. But, in their reporting of facts, reporters don’t always provide a proper context — especially when that context runs counter to the narrative.

In this case, the narrative was that player behavior was poor. Each new arrest was reinforcement of the conclusion. Each new suspension or fine provided a punctuation to the story. Crime, justice, the possibility of redemption. The narrative was bolstered by plausible reasoning from opinion writers — broken homes, absentee fathers, kids these days, athletes who are spoiled, coddled, immature and selfish. The list goes on. But, the reasoning was meaningless because it was constructed on a false foundation. So many were determined to put an end to the lawless behavior of NFL players, that almost no one stopped to notice that the behavior was already excellent.

And, by establishing himself as The Moral Authority, Goodell opened himself (and the league he represents) to charges of “not taking X issue seriously” at nearly any time. Because the sentences were essentially arbitrary, all that was needed was a punishment that seemed light in comparison to some other action deemed worse. That happened this summer when Josh Cribbs was suspended a year after testing positive for marijuana (which was preposterous in itself, but that’s another story) while Ray Rice got two games for knocking out his fiancé in an elevator.

In a sense, the truly honest answer is that the NFL doesn’t take a lot of social issues very seriously, and with good reason. It’s not why they exist. Their business model is to stage football games before massive crowds. Their business is to provide programming fodder for their television partners, and stories for web pages and print publications. Fixing what’s wrong with society would be nice, but it’s a job for which a sports league is ill equipped.

Those metaphorical land mines are detonating, and they’ll continue to go off as the investigation into the league’s handling of the Ray Rice incident continues. Best case for Goodell is a finding that he was merely incompetent in failing to view the video (which the league had in its possession) before handing down Rice’s sentence. The other option is that he’s also dishonest.

Goodell is scrambling now — to protect the NFL shield, but also likely to save his job. His quest was to avoid the negative headlines. In his zeal to fix a non-existent player behavior problem, he set in motion a chain of events that inexorably led to a PR nightmare.


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