The NFL: When a Missed Opportunity Becomes a Failure of Culture

Tyler Tullis

Tyler Tullis
Senior Account Director

Sep 13, 2014 | Point of View


WHEN NFL COMMISSIONER Roger Goodell stepped up to the podium last Friday to address the steps his organization would take to combat domestic violence within the league, he punted when he should have gone for it.

Regardless of what Goodell and others actually knew about “the Ray Rice matter,” he acknowledged a botched handling on his part and promised “to get it right, and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that.”

Watch Goodell’s full press conference.

Unfortunately Goodell’s notion of “it” is woefully inadequate. Why? He and NFL leadership are still treating domestic violence as if it rests only in the bubble of their organization.

This was the commissioner’s chance to show that he had an inescapable grasp on the broader issue and position the league as a leader to fight it, but instead he spent his time at the podium pledging reform without defined action. He said everything was up for discussion. He said the league is looking for consistency as to when and how hard it should punish players. He said every state has different laws, and, boy howdy, that makes things really hard.

It’s a stark contrast, by the way, to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decisive and immediate handling of Donald Sterling and his incendiary bigotry. Where Goodell shrugged at the difficulty of the NFL’s crisis, Silver drew a line in the sand and said, Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s what we’re going to tolerate and what we won’t.

Instead Goodell offered this. “I’m proud of the opportunity that we have to try to make a difference here… We’ve acknowledged that we have to change what we’re doing, now we have to get to what are those changes going to be.”

First off, there is nothing the NFL should be proud of at this point, certainly not in their response. Second, their acknowledgement came too late. It’s already been made for them by just about anyone with internet or a cable connection. This was a moment for action, and not just about how they handled Ray Rice.

What did he actually promise? An independent investigation into the review process for Rice’s brutality. New conduct policies. Vague partnerships with other organizations. Consistency in the league’s reaction to incidents of violence.

That was the ultimate failure of this statement: the continued reactionary focus.

The “it” that the NFL had the opportunity to address—the responsibility to address—was the issue of domestic violence. All domestic violence. In every sport. In every city. In every instance. The NFL has the opportunity to own this, to lead a national discussion and campaign to address the issue as the central thought leader telling the culture of football and society: This is not okay. This is never okay.

The NFL is perhaps the one organization in the world with the clout, influence, resources, and relevance to the issue to truly crusade against it and make a meaningful impact on the way we approach domestic violence anywhere we find it.

But instead of taking responsibility and leadership around a concentrated effort to change our culture, the NFL is content investigating their reaction to Ray Rice. They’ll move the ball a yard when they should take it the length of the field.

And we all know why.

The NFL can’t lead this issue because this issue isn’t the NFL’s priority.

Has there been any dip in viewership? Are jerseys selling for less? A megalith the size of the NFL needs an incentive to change—don’t hold your breath for an epiphany of altruism from Goodell.

Instead the league will continue a cycle of reactionary appeasement to each new battery, each torturous act to a child. They’ll punish a single offender and move on to the next. They’ll keep laying a dime on domestic violence to every dollar they spend marketing the next game.

In front of the UN this week, Emma Watson dropped the iconic quote from Irish statesman Edmund Burke regarding women’s rights. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

That’s what the NFL, predominantly populated by good men though it may be, is doing against domestic violence. Nothing. And it’s as much a missed opportunity for them as it is a failure of culture for all of us.

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