The NFL announced that its owners have unanimously approved a new, tougher personal conduct policy for its players. The biggest thing they showed with the vote is that they still don’t understand the problem they’re facing.
When Roger Goodell was appointed commissioner, he did so with the mission to stamp out bad behavior by the players. With himself as judge and jury, Goodell would reach out with the heavy hand of justice, and the league’s reputation would be transformed.
But, as I wrote back in September, Goodell took careful aim on the wrong problem. Despite being a public relations guy during his career in the NFL’s league office, Goodell fell victim to a classic mistake: he believed the media.
It’s not that news reports were wrong when reporting about individual misdeeds, it was the belief that those individual misdeeds converged into a deep-rooted problem. In reality, an objective and systematic look at the off-field behavior of NFL players shows they’re overwhelmingly a responsible, law-abiding bunch. NFL players are far less likely than others in their age/gender cohort to do the kinds of things that run afoul of the law.
Goodell’s personal conduct policy is aimed at correcting player behavior. But the issue isn’t the behavior itself, but the perception. And, with his strong-arm policy and “I’m gonna control of this situation” approach, he’s actually exacerbating that perception problem.
By creating a Big Solution, Goodell (and the league’s owners) feed the perception that player behavior is a Big Problem. It’s not. There are individual problems that can be addressed, but a few isolated incidents don’t require a codified system of justice — we have a court system for that.
Now, the perception problem wouldn’t have been easily fixed. The league has data on its side, but narratives are often immune to facts. And, the perception is fueled in part by the reality that the majority of players are black, and automatically seen as “other” to a significant portion of the white majority in this country.
However, the NFL also has big advantages in countering a perception problem, such as powerful media partners and friendly reporters who would happily publish a story the league wants.
The new policy isn’t all bad. The provision that allows for a paid leave of absence when a player is charged with a violent crime is good. And, I think it’s a good thing to convene experts to find ways of reducing incidents of domestic violence among the league’s players.
But, the NFL is unilaterally implementing its own justice system — without consulting the players union. They’re attempting to codify punishments for certain actions, but will inevitably misjudge and overlook key factors. No matter how many experts they bring together, they just can’t think of everything. And what they can’t think of will come back and bite them in ways they can’t imagine.
More to the point: even the most perfect, ironclad, no-holes personal conduct policy is doomed to fail because the league’s problem is the perception of player conduct, not the actual conduct of the the vast majority of its players. A more stringent policy serves only to heighten the perception that players are out of control. So when the next big incident happens (and it will, because players are human), the storm will only be worse because it’ll have the additional boost of…See, NOTHING can get these guys to act right.
The players aren’t the problem, and its a damn shame their employers seem unaware of this fact.