How Roger Goodell can save brand NFL
The National Football League is always in crisis mode.
This summer, the players union pushed players to stash a bit of each paycheck in prep for a 2020 strike. The New York Times recently profiled the lab that had been hired by the NFL to examine Tom Brady’s footballs, surfacing Deflategate once again. This Sunday, another batch of players will protest the national anthem as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And throughout the polarizing storm, a continuous rain of studies reinforce occupational hazards—concussions, early-onset Alzheimer’s or Dementia, depression, crippling joint and bone debilities—players endure just by showing up.
Zealous fanboys and fangirls root for and criticize every game, practice, coaching move and injury report like quarterly earnings reports. 150 million viewers watch the league on TV, 75 million participate in fantasy leagues and a deep sea of bloggers weigh in 24/7 from the Web. Billionaire team owners have the ear of the press and Millennial players run their own social media accounts. The NFL’s brand messaging is literally out of control. And to top it all off, unlike most companies where employees route press conversations through internal PR, NFL players are fined for not talking to journalists.
Unfortunately for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, there’s nowhere to hide. As de-facto CMO and lead disciplinarian of America’s biggest, baddest boy band, he’s tasked with shepherding the league through its most difficult era in history. Revenues are up 100% to $13 billion since he took over in 2006, but players are feeling the weight of their short careers and the physically brutal workplace. Americans are horrified by the risks that come with playing football, and a third say they won’t allow their sons to play. For parents with college degrees, it’s 40%. Even NFL players who will let their sons play, don’t want them to start until they’re teenagers.
Goodell critics call him “an out-of-touch CEO,” “arbitrary,” “rudderless,” “impulsive,” “overreaching,” “Draconian,” “uneducable,” “the most overpaid employee in the lower-48” and, last week, “the Vladimir f–king Putin of the NFL.” Much of the critique is impulsive and overreaching depending on what team you love or how perfectly you expect Goodell to put out fires in real time. In reality, Goodell should be ranked only on how he steers the NFL through its three most important channels: Players’ health and wellness, league integrity and players’ financial state. The future of the league, which is experiencing double-digit decreases in viewership, depends on him. So let’s take a step back to rate Goodell like a scout might assess a new draft pick.
Position: Health and Wellness
Grade: B- and trending up
Goodell started out with a fat F when he refused to admit to Congress in Oct 2009 that there was a link between football and head trauma. The commissioner’s testimony denied the first-hand observation of former players, players’ wives and evidence from scientific reports. A University of Michigan study in September 2009, for instance, showed that Alzheimer’s disease was 19x more common in footballers than in the general 30-49-year-old male population. Goodell turned the NFL into the new tobacco industry – opaque, dishonest and careless with reality.
Goodell didn’t realize that while he runs the league, he’s no more powerful in the field of public opinion than his current and former employees. Big Tobacco stamped out the truth because their cigarettes claimed the lives of average, nameless citizens. Concussion-induced depression hurts celebrity athletes with loud, national followings. When Hall of Famer Junior Seau and well-loved Pro Bowler David Duerson committed suicide, intentionally leaving their brains to science, America lit up with conversation. Doctors reported in real time that they found the degenerative brain disease CTE in both autopsies. Then, in 2013, 4500 former players and their families blitzed the NFL with a lawsuit for hiding the facts about concussions.
This time, Goodell stepped up in the pocket. He convinced owners to cut the cord on an era of denial and settle the $765 million suit. A large portion goes to families and former players, and the lawsuit opens the door to what will be a parade of future suits. The NFL now funds medical exams, research, education, independent neurologists for each team. Through partnerships with hospitals and universities, former players can get medical care for free. And, a collaboration with GE and Under Armour is developing ways to better see and track concussions and to try and create safer helmets. Goodell created a culture of open dialogue, no matter how nasty the reality of injuries is.
On the field, the NFL mandates a four-step Concussion Protocol that slows down injured players’ return to the game. The protocol puts power in the hands of doctors, who focus on health, instead of in the hands of coaches, who are focused on winning. Concussion reports are up, largely due to self-reporting players who now understand that missing a game or two is a better bet than “being a man” and heading back into play with impending brain damage. Goodell’s position in the lawsuit, his refusal to deny the concussion link and his health mandates helps produce important national conversation. “This is much bigger than the NFL … I’m excited that this field I’ve labored in for 30 years is all of a sudden moving forward,” Washington School of Medicine Neurological Surgery and a co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, said.
Position: League Integrity
Grade: B and trending up
You can’t stop concussions, but you can hope to contain them, and other serious injuries, through consistent enforcement. Goodell meters out stiff penalties, fines and suspensions up and down the food chain. At the bottom are tiny 15-yard penalties—paper cuts in the scheme of the game but enough to spark deep conversation. Critics laid into Goodell for “ruining the game” and conservative politicians warn that “we’ll be playing flag football” in no time. But making each helmet-to-helmet hit a polarizing issue generates more attention and scrutiny. TV and blogs replay helmet-to-helmet hits in slow motion, and we see the impact of a 300-pound man sprinting and leaping like a missile into another man’s head. Then we see the victim, shaken and grimacing, clenching his head to try and steady the ringing of his injured brain.
With small, consistent penalties in place, Goodell’s set precedent for bigger, more influential fish. When the Super Bowl Championship-winning New Orleans Saints paid players for knocking out opponents, Goodell suspended their head coach for an entire season—an unprecedented, eyebrow-raising penalty—their defensive coordinator indefinitely and took away two draft picks. Last month, Goodell fined Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll $200,000 and docked the organization a fifth-round draft pick for full-contact summer practice, a breach of the new safety rules. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said he was “deeply disappointed” and a throwback coach might spit tobacco in the dirt and call Goodell a sissy. But coaches aren’t the ones getting knocked in the head day in and day out. A coach’s lifespan is decades while the average player lasts less than four years. Through penalties, Goodell instills integrity into the league, creates boundaries and enforces consequences on those who step out of bounds.
The penalties are absolutely necessary. We learn over and over again that hyper-competitive, testosterone-fueled communities find it impossible to police themselves. Going after Carroll and Saints’ Coach Sean Payton shows that Goodell is firm, not rudderless. His pursuit of Hall of Famer slash model-face of the league Tom Brady shows that the commissioner is the independent ombudsman critics insist he needs. Goodell went against Brady and Patriots owner Bob Kraft even though Kraft helped Goodell secure a raise, get elected and provide constant counsel and support. After Brady’s lawyers won an appeal to overturn the NFL’s initial suspension, Goodell organized another suit in front of the US Court of Appeals in New York City where judges voted 13-0 to reject Brady’s appeal and reinstate the initial penalty of a four game suspension.
Is it fair to call Goodell an overreacher by going after Brady twice? Absolutely. But we should prefer the commissioner’s zeal over reading how Brady destroyed his cell phone and joked with assistants about deflating and needles to the point that his assistant’s nickname was Deflator.
Goodell makes it clear that he’s not “the law,” but that he is the judge. And, sometimes, his brand of justice outpaces America’s. After a woman accused two-time Super Bowl winner and future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger of sexual assault, Goodell banned him six games without pay. Roethlisberger wasn’t charged with a crime, but the commissioner docked him $2 million anyway, writing, “You are held to a higher standard as an NFL player.”
By enforcing penalties off-field penalties, Goodell puts himself in a tough position. What should he do when, say, an All Star running back hits his fiancée so hard she’s knocked unconscious? Sadly, that’s not hypothetical, and Goodell’s reaction to Ray Rice’s 2014 domestic abuse earned him a boatload of criticism. Rightfully so—the NFL took the same approach it had with initial concussion reports. Goodell denied he saw the elevator video showing violence, an intentional negligence that excused him to ban Rice for just two games. Then, when he caved to the reality that everyone could see the video on TMZ and that America was horrified by such a small penalty, Goodell made the ban indefinite. A judge penalized the commissioner for changing his mind, and reinstated Rice. The Times summed up the general feeling by writing, “Instead of a strong leader when the league needs it most, he has been an inconsistent and weak one.”
Goodell was unprepared for a media world where truth spreads very quickly. Huge failure. But it was the first real-time, high-profile domestic abuse case. A few months later, he was better prepared when Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson beat his son badly with a tree branch. Goodell and Peterson’s boss, the Minnesota Vikings, agreed to keep Peterson off the field the rest of the season. In December 2014, the league got ahead of future problems by finalizing a personal conduct policy with standardized penalties that include anyone in the NFL, not just players: A six-game ban for first offense and a lifetime for a second offense.
Position: Financial Security
What Goodell isn’t doing well is focusing on the financial state of current and former players. Only half of NFLers graduate college (better than other sports leagues but plenty of work to be done), and the average career is four years long. Imagine hitting your 27th or 28th birthday, retired, and without a college education. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Jeremy Staat found himself in that position, applied for a job at Home Depot and got rejected because he didn’t have a diploma. He went back to school, earned a master’s in education and is now an associate professor in welding. Not every retiree is that disciplined – almost 80% of players go broke within three years of leaving the game.
Goodell and the NFL need to build strong bridges to financial success for current players and the 16,000 retirees. There are seeds for change, starting with an NFL College Advisory Committee that advises college athletes on whether they’re going to make it to the NFL. Last year, almost a third of players eligible for the draft did not get selected into the league. The NFLPA offers $20,000 for footballers to go back and get their degree, and the NFL provides up to $60,000 in tuition reimbursements. On the NFL side, though, there are strict parameters – education needs to happen within four years of the player’s last game, and he has to have played at least five seasons. The Trust, a support group for former players, helps retirees transition to life after the game through career guidance and business mentorship. And the league’s NFL Player Engagement site covers the experiences of NFL retirees or “legends” as they develop their lives off the field.
What Goodell is missing is a strategic campaign that puts NFL financial security front and center. Those players who are succeeding in life after football need to be promoted before every single game, every single week. New graduate from the NFL MBA program? Announce him after the national anthem. Another player successfully starts goes back to college? Grab a minute of his time in the post-game press conference. Feed game announcers information about off-the-field business and education successes so that they bring them up while announcing the game.
Goodell’s power is in the NFL’s multimillion-person viewership. The debates around head injuries and integrity penalties become evergreen discussions because he shines the light on them. Now is the time for the NFL to propel its brand past a reputation for a dangerous, dead-end profession.
Image via NFL