Now comes the news that former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III will conduct a probe into how the National Football League handled (or mishandled) evidence as it investigated domestic violence claims against former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the man on the hot seat for initially only giving Rice a two-game suspension for knocking his wife out cold in an Atlantic City casino elevator, says Mueller “will have full access to all NFL records.”
One might ask what choice did Goodell have?
It’s clear that the NFL office poorly managed the Rice case and is suffering fallout from all sides. Fans, political leaders, advocates for curbing domestic abuse, the National Organization of Women and a host of others are outraged with Goodell’s punishment.
Some have called for Goodell to resign, but the so-called “man behind the shield” has no intention of stepping down. At this point, unless some of the influential owners drop their support, or a major advertiser (like Bud or Chevy) pull their ads, it’s likely the commissioner will retain his job. After all, he’s tied to a money making machine that grosses $9 billion a year, with much of that money going to the owners.
From a communications standpoint, it appears Goodell violated rule number one of crisis management: he neglected to obtain the facts before taking action against Rice. According to press reports, he saw the first video of Rice’s girlfriend being dragged from the elevator, but (despite asking a number of times) Goodell never got the second video from the casino’s security staff.
The credibility of that stance ended abruptly when the Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official in Atlantic City sent a video of what happened inside the elevator to an NFL executive five months ago. The official interviewed by the AP played a 12-second voicemail form an NFL office number confirming the video had arrived. Subsequently, ESPN reported that Rice had told the commissioner he hit his wife in the elevator.
While Goodell may have thought going on the PR offensive in a CBS interview would silence some critics, the tactic backfired because it appears all the facts were not in. Given the fluid nature of the situation, he might have been better served with a written statement. There’s also the problem that CBS is a business partner of the NFL, paying hundreds of millions to broadcast games. If it turns out, in fact, that Goodell had seen the video, his job is or should be gone.
Code of Conduct Seemingly Ignored
In my view, the root of the NFL’s problem lies not in the Ray Rice incident, but the blatant disregard for the league’s Code of Conduct. Posted on the NFL Players Association website, it’s clear and direct: “All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football league. This requirement applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials and all others privileged to work in the NFL.”
How big is the problem?
Incredibly, only three days after Goodell created a new policy against domestic violence on August 28, San Francisco defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested and accused of felony domestic violence. The new policy imposes a six-game unpaid ban for first-time offenders and up to a lifetime ban for second-time violators.
A detailed database compiled by USA Today shows 713 arrests of NFL players since 2000. Nearly 100 of these have been for domestic violence. That’s a lot of arrests for a league with 1,800 active players each year.
The NFL’s history of punishment is uneven at best. Sometimes players were suspended for a game or two. Sometimes charges were reduced, which also reduced the severity of the punishment. On other occasions, charges were dropped and players’ names cleared.
It seems obvious that the league’s enforcement of its code of conduct is broken. Had Rice been in trouble for abusing drugs rather than abusing an actual human being, his suspension would seemingly have been more severe based on several recent punishments levied by the NFL against other players.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is the most recent and high-profile case of just how imbalanced the NFL's reaction is toward domestic violence versus marijuana -- a substance that's rapidly being decriminalized around the nation. Gordon was handed a season-long suspension after testing positive for marijuana during the offseason, his second drug violation. He's currently waiting to appeal the suspension.
Domestic violence and drug abuse are not the only problems impacting the league. The other elephant in the room is player concussions. Recently, a federal judge granted preliminary approval to a landmark $675 million settlement that would compensate thousands of former players for concussion-related claims.
Yet, the drumbeat continues. Barely a week goes by without a star player being sidelined with a concussion. In effect, injuries and cognitive disorders continue unabated. According to published reports, the NFL knew about the long-term effects of concussions but was not proactive in addressing a major player health issue.
Still, when one looks at the total picture, the NFL is not all bad. The NFL Foundation, a non-profit organization representing all 32 teams, focuses on a wide range of important issues. For 2014, the foundation has committed $45 million to USA Football to support health and safety efforts.
In recent years, the foundation has also instituted programs to fight childhood obesity and battle breast cancer. Grants amounting to $10 million each year are also donated to organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the American Heart Association.
Agent of Change
As a business, the financial success of the NFL is beyond question. In fact, despite the reprehensible conduct of players toward their wives and girlfriends, women continue to support the league (the NFL publicly states that 47% of its fan base are women).
However, as history has proven, nothing is invincible. I suspect that unless the NFL cleans up its act, over time, the popularity of the sport will decline. Violence in the sport will never be eliminated, but the conduct of players must change. According to some experts, when it comes to separating aggressive and violent behavior on the field from life, the lines might be fuzzy at best. The league needs to hold itself and all the people associated with it to a higher standard of behavior and conduct.
What the league is facing is a systematic failure of policies and practices that have contaminated the sport. Conduct -- in particular drug abuse, domestic violence, and other off-field antics -- have become a cancer. Instead of placating owners and protect players, Goodell can be an “agent of change.”
It’s fine that a former FBI director is going to probe the Ray Rice fiasco, but the league needs to step back and look long and hard at the bigger picture. Whether it’s by bringing in experts or establishing some type of blue ribbon panel, the concept is to identify and address major issues before they explode in public.
Unfortunately, today organizations do nothing until something happens that they can’t ignore, at which time they are forced to cobble together a response under deadline pressure. In short, that’s what happens in the NFL.
The accepted excuse is that Goodell works for the 32 owners, so why would he do anything dramatic to upset the apple cart? If he’s up for the challenge, Goodell has a chance to stand up for the best long-term future of the league, its owners and players to be an agent of change.
Unless there is institutional change, the NFL’s PR nightmares will continue. The names of the players will change, but the individual situations will inflict more reputational and brand damage on a league that has seemingly become too powerful and more focused on profit instead of players and their loved ones.
They say “a fish rots from the head down,” so now is the time for the commissioner and owners of the league’s teams to take on a leadership role in changing a culture and climate that is apparently out of control and in desperate need of reform.
In my view, without major changes, the goodwill and huge public and fan support the league has enjoyed for decades will erode over time.
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Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.