SBJ/Sept. 15-21, 2014/Opinion

Will scandal permanently alter NFL’s public image?

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We all saw the different constituencies last week call for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. From newspaper editorials — The Kansas City Star stated that owners “should fire Goodell for how poorly he served their multibillion-dollar industry” — to major-market columnists — The Washington Post’s Mike Wise wrote Goodell is “an overpaid, tone-deaf functionary” who “needs to go.”   

Politicos followed and groups like the National Organization for Women said Goodell “is not the person who can now credibly lead change.” Added to the calls of resignation were the TV talkers, like ESPN’s Mark Schlereth, who said the league’s image crisis is the “worst I can ever remember,” to network hosts using words like “cover-up” and “incompetent.”

It is by far the biggest threat to the NFL brand and joined Bountygate, Spygate, concussions, player discipline and replacement referees, among others, as hits to the NFL shield. Each has resulted in an odd set of inconsistent messages and actions from the league office, but haven’t had any impact on the league’s business. 

The reputation of the NFL and Roger Goodell has taken a beating in the nation’s headlines in the past week.

This damage is far more significant because of the league’s  inexplicable handling of Ray Rice’s heinous action. The perceptual impact is real. I’ve never seen so little public confidence in NFL leadership in my 20 years covering sports business. The story was fluid late last week, but at deadline, none of my best sources thought Goodell will lose his job. I don’t either. But I do believe he’s lost credibility with the public who now view him with distrust.  His leadership among that constituency has been seriously damaged. All this made me wonder if the number of controversies that have piled up during the Goodell administration indicate that the thought processes at the league are adrift.  

The NFL was always the gold standard of leadership, messaging, PR and communication. That’s clearly in doubt now. Many sources never have a problem bashing the NFL off the record. Few do it on the record. I’ve pushed back, believing that the league has been a leader — smart, vigilant, thoughtful and innovative.

This go-around, however, I’ve had a difficult time understanding the league’s decisions or responses. So much of it has been mishandled. Strategic missteps from how the investigation was handled to the initial penalty. Then the clumsy interview of Adolpho Birch, the league’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, on “Mike and Mike,” which led to only more questions, as Mike Greenberg called out Birch, saying, “I just found myself more and more confused as that conversation went on.” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote that, internally, league executives were surprised and put off by how the Rice story wouldn’t go away. Thinking such a story would go away wasn’t the mindset of the traditionally intuitive, aggressive media corps of the league. But the league of years ago didn’t have to react to TMZ, which isn’t overwhelmed by the size of the NFL and is driven by impact and eyeballs. 

Goodell seemingly straightened course by admitting the league’s significant failure, only to totally lose control of the story again when the second Rice video emerged. Afterward, the league was called “incompetent and irresponsible,” “inhuman” and “reprehensible.”  Goodell was accused of “lying” and  called a “modern day Richard Nixon.”  There was the consistent provocation of HBO’s Bryant Gumbel (who called the league “willfully ignorant”) and ESPN’s Keith Olbermann (who first called on Goodell to resign over this issue in early August), but there was also the strong criticism of longtime NFL writers,whose views fans have grown to trust, the likes of Adam Schefter, Ed Werder, Chris Mortensen and King, who continually questioned the league’s decision making and its leadership. 

It was so surprising to see this happen. The NFL didn’t get dumb overnight. If anything, its executive ranks have become smarter. Look at the pedigree of its talent. That’s why it’s odd to see it on the defensive on issue after issue.   Maybe there are too many smart people in the room.

This is a historically politically savvy operation that understands its public exposure in the marketplace. The league is consistently in a fish bowl for all to see how it acts or reacts. It’s also a risk-averse organization, and decisions are not made without all areas of information examined. But its processes failed significantly. 

Plenty of industry sources I spoke with disputed a sense that the league looked reactive throughout the Rice investigation.  But one could point to how MLB aggressively handled its investigation of Alex Rodriguez with a take-no-prisoners, pit bull mentality, which was far different from the NFL’s approach. One could compare Goodell’s deliberate, conservative action on Rice with Adam Silver’s strong, forceful decision on Donald Sterling. Silver’s proactive stance continues to remain unique to me.  

There will be major fallout from this summer’s mistakes at the league office, adding to recent changes in its executive roster. Much like there were changes after the Janet Jackson incident in Houston, there will be changes here.  

But the most important issue to me goes to the changing fundamentals of the NFL under Goodell versus the Paul Tagliabue years. They are very different. I remember the pivotal moment for Tagliabue in the days after 9/11, when the sports world was at a standstill and looking at him for direction. After careful thought, Tagliabue acted, and everyone took a breath and got in line behind him and the NFL. It doesn’t feel like that NFL anymore.

Now, every decision under Goodell is driven, for good or bad, from a business orientation. All of the league’s decisions are made, all of its actions are taken, before that corporate backdrop, with an eye on revenue generation. Goodell’s charge is on revenue generation; that’s how he sees his job and he has successfully changed the NFL to a 365-day-a-year business. I don’t argue with that; it’s the business we are in. 

But with that comes a brighter spotlight where issues are magnified and there is greater potential for problems and mistakes, which the league admittedly has made.

Goodell has made owners a tremendous amount of money. It wasn’t by accident that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of Goodell’s staunchest supporters, was the first to publicly and overwhelmingly support Goodell’s leadership before promoting CBS’s “Thursday Night Football.”  

Ownership firmly supports Goodell, and I don’t see any breaks in the ranks. Goodell acknowleged he messed this up. Owners will have serious discussions with him about the failed processes this summer and how to fix it.  Those failures have deeply affected public perception of his leadership, his legacy and the league. The issue owners will have to address is the fact that the leader of their sport has lost the public’s trust. Once seen as “The Enforcer,” Goodell  now is viewed by the public as misleading  and deceitful. It also stood out to me what little capital Goodell had with the sports media. Only a few threw even measured support, despite the fact that Goodell comes from that world and has interacted with them for years during his rise at the league office. 

In the sports business, belief in the NFL and its executives remains strong. But the public looks at the league with distrust, and feels it is socially, and perhaps morally, out of touch. That’s been the collateral damage of this decision-making style, this drive for $25 billion.

What bears watching is whether this will undermine the league’s role in society and whether making decisions through a business lens wears on the public. We haven’t seen any business indications that it has or will. We know it won’t wear on ownership, because the revenue keeps increasing. But what happens after the next crisis? What happens the next time the country needs a leader to help it find the right way to move forward from a tragedy? The days of the NFL taking that role may now be over.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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