A popular saying around pro football is that “NFL” can often mean “not for long,” as in, if you don’t perform well, you’ll soon be out of the league. If Roger Goodell isn’t looking over his shoulder, he should be, because he may be one more fumbled situation away from being benched.
Mr. Goodell, as commissioner of the NFL, has long embraced his role as the keeper of the National Football League’s brand. He has led the call for stiffer penalties on players who break the rules—whether they are league rules regarding player safety and performance enhancing drugs, or society’s laws—all of which carry with them corresponding suspensions and fines, or forfeited salary.
Roger has been large-and-in-charge, but he has faced a torrent of issues that have been chipping away at this incredibly rich and successful sport for which the domestic abuse charges against Ray Rice and four other players are only the latest. Many of his problems have been contained within the league itself, including the Spygate issues (one team illegally videotaping another’s signals), Bountygate (a team paying bounties for injuring opposing players), a referee lockout and a player lockout. He has had to staunchly defend the NFL against accusations of covering up the long-term effects of concussions on players—an issue he inherited, but which reached new levels of criticism as evidence of the severity and possible cover-up of the problem emerged.
But his signature action was the creation of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy in 2007, which was intended to specify and clarify punishments for a wide range of offenses, including both league matters and conduct off the field. Dozens of players have received fines, suspensions and have even been banned from the league since then. It’s hard to judge if the harsher punishments have resulted in less player misconduct, but it has certainly heightened awareness and attention about the transgressions.
Mr. Goodell’s biggest problem now may be of his own doing. By holding himself out as the moral authority for the players in the league, he must, of course, hold himself to an even higher standard to maintain that authority. And that has been called into question by the Ray Rice situation.
Even Ravens fans were surprised by the relatively short two-game suspension that Roger handed down, despite a widely publicized video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a casino elevator in February. That players caught with marijuana in their system had recently been given four-game penalties seemed incongruous at best and, at worst, a calloused perception of domestic violence as a less serious transgression. I should note that the New Jersey legal system charged Rice, but accepted him into a program that can result in his record being expunged. So, even the legal system set a low bar for Rice to climb over, although the damage to his celebrity status has been enormous.
All this preceded what could end up being Goodell’s downfall: the release of a second video from inside the elevator which revealed a much more brutal attack than many presumed had taken place. Although the legal system had the video, the NFL claimed not to have seen it before passing judgment on Rice. That is now being disputed by a person who has proof the NFL received a copy of the video soon after the actual event.
The NFL reacted by immediately suspending Rice indefinitely and a classic who-knew-what-when merry-go-round has ensued, with Roger admitting he “didn’t get it right,” and pledging to create new standards for domestic abuse situations. But if his integrity ends up impugned by proof of backroom deals or knowledge of the second video, the NFL’s keeper-of-the-brand could become the enemy of it.
The final verdict is likely to come down to two very subjective elements that could cast a harsh light on Mr. Goodell and the NFL: The first is integrity—did senior NFL officials see the second video despite claims to the contrary? The second is judgment—if they did see the disputed video, how could Roger hand down such a light punishment? All strong brands have a large measure of trust built into them. And when the leader of a brand puts that trust into question, then “NFL” can indeed mean “not for long.”
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.