Ray Rice case: Can NFL leadership weather media firestorm?

As criticism continues to mount over Commissioner Roger Goodell's handling of the domestic violence case, 'the NFL is facing its greatest crisis since it decided to play after the assassination of JFK,' one analyst says.

Robert Deutsch/USA Today
A plane tows a banner reading 'Goodell Must Go' before the game between the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J., Sept. 14, 2014.

A week after the Ray Rice video surfaced, the National Football League is still scrambling to douse the media firestorm over the league’s handling of domestic violence by its players. 

Commissioner Roger Goodell has come in for heavy criticism over his handling of a domestic abuse case involving the former Baltimore Raven, which became deafening last week after a video surfaced of Mr. Rice knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City elevator. Rice was released by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended by the league, but that was not enough to mute calls for Mr. Goodell’s resignation.

The NFL, meanwhile, has taken steps to prove it is serious about confronting domestic violence. On Monday, it announced a new four-woman advisory panel, including three experts on domestic violence. And in August, Goodell unveiled a tougher policy of a six-game suspension for first offenses and a potential lifetime ban for a second.

But the hashtag “Goodell must go” is still picking up thousands of supporters online and the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet plans to fly this message in the skies over Monday Night Football games.

All this pushback suggests to some analysts that the NFL can’t get a break from media attention largely because its leadership is tone-deaf to today’s hot-button issues. The controversy shows no signs of dying down.

It is fast becoming a cautionary tale about leadership in the always-on, 24/7 media culture, says Washington-based strategic consultant Richard Levick.

“The NFL is facing its greatest crisis since it decided to play after the assassination of JFK,” he says.  

Two more cases added fuel to critics’ charges that the league doesn’t take violence by its players seriously: Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson was indicted last week in Texas on a child-abuse charge for striking his four-year-old son with a tree branch. He was benched for three days before being cleared to play by the team Monday. Amid the swelling criticism, the Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, last weekend decided to deactivate Greg Hardy, who was convicted of two charges of domestic abuse in July. Mr. Hardy has appealed and is awaiting a jury trial. As of deadline, the team had not decided whether to play Mr. Hardy this coming weekend.

Simple changes will not satisfy a public whose appetite for justice has been whetted by video evidence people can view for themselves.

Goodell has done what many CEOs unfortunately do in the wake of a building scandal, says Mr. Levick.

“He made an individual’s problem a problem for the brand and now, increasingly, a problem for himself,” he says.

Goodell made the mistake of believing that his brand was strong enough with the American public to overcome any issue, says Levick.

“But it can’t overcome video in the digital age,” he says, adding that the lesson for any business is that “in the future there will only be more surreptitious recordings on both audio and video.” 

Goodell’s error in this may not be his failure to lead, says Robert Boland, professor of Sports Management & Law at New York University, “but that he waded into it at all, because this issue has overwhelmed and engulfed him.” 

The NFL stands alone as the only major sports league that invests its commissioner with both disciplinary and business power. Others require mandatory independent arbitration on disciplinary issues, he notes.

The commissioner’s best move now is to make clear just what he can and cannot do. Mr. Boland says.

Major sports leagues were not initially conceived as entities that might take on every important issue in the culture, points out Boland. 

“But today in 2014, they need to be sensitive to the important issues in society,” he says. 

Genuine cultural change however, involves much more than a mere shift in policy from the top down, says Chris Griffin, partner at Foley & Lardner and former chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence, with a special focus on football culture.

“It needs to be top down, but also bottom up and side to side to be effective,” he says. 

A former college football player, Mr. Griffin says one of the knottiest problems is the culture of special treatment enjoyed by athletes.

“They have this sense of entitlement,” he says adding that this creates a nearly impervious wall of separation from mainstream cultural values. “They just see themselves as special.”

The flip side is that this elite place pro athletes hold in American culture makes them perfect spokespersons on important issues, says Griffin. And that’s what it will take to effect real change, he adds.

“It requires men speaking to men, coming out and becoming role models for other younger men and athletes,” he says. 

New policies are a good start, says Dan Lebowitz, director of the Center for Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston. But they need to be followed by meaningful education initiatives.

In the case of domestic violence, such programs would need to involve men speaking to men, says Griffin. “Men listen to men,” he says.

He says the media are asking the wrong question when they wonder if Goodell will weather this crisis.

“I don’t really care whether he does or not,” he says.

“What I care about is what are the NFL players going to do going forward with respect to personal conduct and are they going to reach out and mentor younger men,” he says, adding that the leadership needs to come from Goodell, “but it has to come from within the ranks of the NFL, as well.”

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