On the NFL, Ray Rice and leadership
When he was running the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, so this was obviously more than
a dozen years ago, Mitt Romney had a saying that bore on the astute reflections of the
ladies and gentlemen of the press. It traced to his Mormon forebears, who had come
across the prairies in covered wagons.
“The dogs may bark,” Romney would say when the newspapers would be filled with
one story after another as the Games struggled to recover from the scandal linked to Salt
Lake’s winning bid for the 2002 Games, “but the caravan moves on.”
The leadership of any high-profile sports enterprise can be said, in one way or
another, to be an exercise in ongoing crisis management.
Now it is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s turn in the white-hot spotlight.
He and the league are suddenly wrestling with a rapid-fire succession of cases
linked to domestic violence and allegations of child abuse. In concert, they underscore the
National Football League’s unique place in American culture even as they also frame
significant questions going forward about issues such as due process that remain at the
core of the American experience — issues that absolutely need to be addressed, quietly,
with reason and certitude, amid all the shouting.
On Sept. 8, the Baltimore Ravens released running back Ray Rice and the league
suspended him indefinitely after the website TMZ posted a video showing him punching
his future wife, Janay, in an elevator.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Vikings placed Adrian Peterson, another of the
league’s standout running backs, who is facing child abuse charges in Texas, on the
exempt-commissioner’s list. Peterson is alleged to have whipped his 4-year-old son with a
“switch,” or a tree branch. That same day, the Carolina Panthers took the same action with
defensive lineman Greg Hardy; he was found guilty of domestic violence in a case
involving his girlfriend in July. Hardy is appealing.
Also Wednesday, Arizona Cardinals backup running back Jonathan Dwyer was
arrested on charges of aggravated assault against his wife and 17-month-old son and four other counts, all from incidents that took place in July. Police allege he head-butted her
after she refused sex. The Cardinals immediately deactivated Dwyer, putting him on the
reserve/non-football illness list; he is now ineligible to play for the team this season.
The Rice case has been, by far, the most prominent matter, because the elevator
video is so provocative. It has served as a lighting rod for Goodell’s leadership under
pressure — offering lessons, good and not so, for the league and for others, both in the
United States and worldwide, confronting a major issue, and in real time.
The prime takeaway from the Salt Lake scandal, which erupted in late 1998, is
that leaders and institutions need to be as transparent and accountable as possible.
In this regard, Goodell has assuredly made some missteps.
At the same time, he also has — despite the many critics, their voices amplified
by social media — done some things right.
Starting from the obvious: domestic violence and child abuse are never
Now, some of the the not-so-good:
●In July, Rice was given a two-game suspension under the NFL’s personal
conduct policy following a Feb. 15 altercation with his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City,
N.J., casino elevator. That was too lenient — particularly for a league seeking to attract
●Critically, Goodell did not go after the in-elevator tape diligently enough. As
commissioner, for instance, could he have used more leverage with Rice’s defense
attorney? Goodell and the Ravens say they never saw the video before Sept. 8.
● Shortly after the TMZ video emerged, Goodell sat down for a one-on-one
interview with CBS News. He hasn’t been heard from since. He needs to make himself
available for a news conference. I was there at the hotel in suburban Chicago the day
Goodell was elected commissioner. He’s good at news conferences. Have the NFL PR
office give everyone with a press pass in New York 60 — heck, make it 90 — minutes
notice. That’s more than enough.
In that CBS interview, Goodell said the league is “particularly reliant” on law
enforcement for evidence. Unsaid is that TMZ, which is at its core a celebrity-news
website, gets its stuff wherever it gets it — and maybe it pays for it and maybe it
doesn’t. This leads, however, to a fascinating — albeit fundamental — question:
Do we really want employers to buy evidence regarding activities their
employees are involved in outside the workplace?
Or what about this:
Consider Dwyer’s sudden ineligibility. If you go about suspending everyone who
is accused of a crime, what about due process? And this, too: millions of dollars are bet, some of it legally, on the NFL. If players are suddenly being forced out because of accusations of domestic violence — what happens if such accusations are made on false, flimsy or thin evidence? Or, worse — if an accuser is being paid off by a gambler? These are the sorts of difficult, nuanced questions that demand experience — and relationships forged over time — to sift through.
Goodell, despite cries that he should step down or be fired, seems increasingly
unlikely to go anywhere.
Though Anheuser-Busch, a major NFL sponsor, earlier this week said it was
“increasingly concerned” over reports of NFL player domestic violence, the chief
executive of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, late Wednesday issued a statement calling some
players’ behavior “repugnant” but describing Goodell as a “man of integrity.”
Such praise from the female CEO of the maker of Pepsi, Gatorade and Doritos —
and the sponsor of last year’s Super Bowl halftime show — is notable.
Meanwhile, another major sponsor, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, issued a
statement that said the NFL had reached out to the company several weeks ago and has
“been working behind the scenes to develop and implement problems that will address
the [domestic violence] problem at its root.”
These sponsors, and others, understand that in fact Goodell has shown
leadership amid the storm.
●Goodell actually has levied punishment on Rice. After the video emerged, he
suspended him indefinitely from the league — a suspension the NFL Players
Association is now challenging, asserting Rice’s due process rights. Query: has anyone
else punished Rice? The criminal justice system? In May, Rice was accepted into a
pretrial diversion program, which meant he would avoid prosecution, assuming he
successfully completes the program (it usually takes about a year).
● The big thing: after initially assessing the two-game penalty, Goodell began
meeting with domestic violence experts and advocates. He then conceded he’d made a
mistake and issued not just a personal but an organizational apology, acknowledging
he “didn’t get it right.”
Under a new NFL policy announced in August, first-time domestic violence
offenders would face six-game suspensions and repeat offenders would be suspended
Intriguingly, this sort of thoughtful honesty and analysis is precisely the sort of
thing we say we want in our leaders. Yet when they actually do it, far too many critics
are incredibly quick to use it as a weapon against them.
Just one question: why?
This article was republished with permission from the editor and publisher of the Sport Intern, Karl-Heinz Huba.