Again this week, the intersection of sports and politics made headlines when the National Collegiate Athletic Association pulled website advertising by the advocacy group Focus on the Family. Several weeks ago, this organization's same ad campaign garnered national attention for spots during the Super Bowl featuring Pam Tebow's story of her choice not to abort her Heisman trophy-winning, national championship-quarterbacking son, Tim.
Ironically, the NCAA website ads were part of the deal that paid for the Super Bowl ads, since CBS Sports maintains the NCAA Website and apparently sold the advertising as part of the same $2.5 million contract with Focus on the Family. The NCAA stepped forward to take a stand against advertising that does not meet its standards of being "generally supportive of NCAA values and attributes and/or not be in conflict with the NCAA's mission and fundamental principles."
While the ads themselves cleverly couch their message in the neutral tagline "Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life," Focus on the Family's mission is dedicated to right-wing Christian values, among them advocating against abortion and gay marriage. Around the Super Bowl, women's groups and free speech advocates clamored to debate whether CBS should have accepted the advertisement, but the individual with the most power and responsibility to take a stand -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell -- sat squirrelishly on the sidelines of the issue, skirting the controversy.
As the NCAA's actions this week have shown, the responsibility for sending a message about the appropriate advertising standards for any sport falls squarely on the shoulders of its governing body. The NCAA recognized what the NFL did not: that controversial and divisive political messages have no place in the fan experience of sporting events, whatever the agenda.
Now is the time for the NFL and other major professional sports leagues to follow suit. Empowered to act in the "best interests of the game," the NFL Commissioner should establish rules about what advertising should be aired during the Super Bowl, or any other NFL game for that matter -- and take away the opportunity for the highest bidder to determine what the fan experience should be.
Like the other major commissioners in major professional sports, Goodell wields nearly unfettered power with broad authority to set the policies and agenda for everything from on-field conduct of the players to the types of business relationships teams and their owners can have. The leagues uniformly require that contracts for the rights to show games on-air contain league-mandated language subjecting the agreement to rules established by the commissioner -- in his sole discretion.
The leagues often use these rules to prohibit teams and/or their media rightsholders from accepting certain advertising -- as the NBA did for nearly 20 years by prohibiting hard liquor on courtside signage or as most leagues now do with rules that restrict ads related to organizations that accept bets on sporting events. And in January, the NFL argued to the Supreme Court that the league should be free from most antitrust scrutiny in the landmark American Needle, Inc. v. NFL case, which would further expand the Commissioner's power over all aspects of the league's business.
But if the commissioner wants this power, he should take the responsibility: Commissioner Goodell should follow the NCAA's lead and set policies that ensure that NFL games are an experience that exemplifies a unifying force for all fans, prohibiting the Super Bowl and any other NFL game from serving as a platform for public debate on divisive social and political issues regardless of the position.
History has shown that sports have a remarkable ability to influence social norms -- and the commissioners of these sports often are the key to that influence. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, it was only because Commissioner Happy Chandler paved the way with his support when he succeeded Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had steadfastly refused to allow African American players in the league.
And many commissioners have demonstrated the savvy to determine precisely where wield that influence -- even if there is no simple bright line to be drawn. NFL commissioners have decided, in years past, to put the NFL's support whole-heartedly behind the United Way and to oppose domestic violence. In turn, these Commissioners have steered clear of controversial issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and who should be the next president of the United States. These commissioners have consistently demonstrated a keen understanding of where the line should be drawn based on what unites, rather than divides, their core fan base. Commissioner Goodell is no different. He launched the NFL Play 60 campaign promoting physical fitness for America's children because he knew that all NFL fans would rally behind it.
Though some may be troubled by a Viagra ad and others may be opposed to liquor advertising featuring scantily-clad women, there is an obvious difference between ads selling a product and those seeking an audience to influence public debate. It is easy to make a distinction between the marketing of those products and advocating for issues -- be it anti-abortion, pro-gay marriage or otherwise -- that are recurrent subjects of rhetoric in campaigns on which people on either side of the issue are alternately impassioned or outraged.
Moreover, avoiding that rhetoric may just be good for business. In a year where the media has focused on the abominable behavior of certain sports figures -- like Steve Phillips and Tiger Woods -- have shown toward women, many forget the significance of women as sports fans and the spending power they represent for the professional sports teams and their advertisers. In fact, women represent a growing audience for the NFL. According to published Neilsen reports, approximately 38% of viewers of the 2008 Super Bowl were women, a number that reflected an 8% increase over the prior ten years. Even if those women are equally divided on the issue of abortion (as polls often show), no league wants to alienate nearly 20% of their viewership.
Anyone watching the Olympics over the past two weeks has seen again that, at their best, sports serve as a powerful unifying force among all people. The NCAA recognized just that power by pulling the Focus on the Family ad -- noting in its standards that it may pull advertisements that "that do not appear to be in the best interests of higher education and student athletes." It is time -- and in the "best interests of the game" -- for Commissioner Goodell and his colleagues to follow the NCAA's lead and set standards that prevent their games from becoming a platform for advocating someone else's cause. Fractious political messages belong on the soapbox not on the playing field.
Lucinda Kinau Treat has spent more than a decade as a lawyer and senior executive in professional sports, including as the former Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Madison Square Garden and the former Chief Legal Officer of New England Sports Ventures, owner of the Boston Red Sox and NESN.