The NFL is one of the most powerful cultural institutions in America. It dominates television ratings, it drives marketing decisions, fantasy football and it provides endless content year-round for bloggers, columnists and commentators. The average NFL team is worth $1.43 billion, and its top players earn more than $20 million a year. Many communities invest in state of the art stadiums to host their home team. And many NFL players are active role models in their respective communities.
The NFL is a huge business, but with its success comes great responsibility. Yet the owners and commissioner of the NFL have been more committed to protecting their business than in getting out ahead on several key social issues that have faced the league. Where is the leadership?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted as much when speaking specifically about the league's handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. "Unfortunately over the past several weeks, we've seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me," he said. "I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. And I'm sorry for that. I got it wrong on a number of levels: from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that."
Roger Goodell began his career in the NFL in 1982, and he has been commissioner since 2006, a role for which he was paid a staggering $44 million last year. He has said his job is to "protect the shield," a reference to the NFL logo. But where would the NFL be without its players? That is where the league's focus should have been from the moment it became aware of the impact of head injuries, the illegal use of drugs, and the many incidents of domestic violence. Instead, the NFL has had a reactionary policy to each of these growing crises designed primarily to ameliorate a public relations problem.
Today there are about 1,700 players on the 32 NFL teams, most in their mid-20s. These are young men, many of whom came from broken homes and impoverished circumstances. Many of the youngest players are not mature and are prone to make mistakes in judgment. Their sudden wealth, the average NFL salary is about $2 million, and fame can often be a difficult adjustment for a young player just out of college. Yes, they are well-paid employees in a successful business, but many need mentoring. The NFL can play a more active role in the human development of its players, which may help prevent mistakes in judgment.
At his news conference Friday, Goodell was asked if he considered resigning. "I have not. I am focused on doing my job, and doing it to the best of my abilities." It is hard to believe that resignation had not crossed his mind, just as it is hard to believe the NFL will truly be transparent and open in its "independent" investigation of the Rice incident. In the end the truth will come out, and Roger Goodell will have to step down.
But that will not exonerate all of the NFL owners. The owners need to create management structures throughout the league that are more diverse, starting with the NFL headquarters on Park Avenue. More women and minorities need to be given important management roles so that the front offices are more in touch with the players.
The NFL and its owners need to take the offensive when it comes to the best interest of its players. It is time to stop fumbling the ball.