Ever since I can remember, I have been a huge NFL fan.
I vividly remember sitting in my parents’ trailer park home watching my favorite player William “The Refrigerator” Perry and the Bears destroy the Patriots in Super Bowl XX even though I was only 4 years old.
I was the strange boy who amazed everyone by knowing all the NFL teams and their mascots and helmets by heart in kindergarten. I learned to read more quickly than most other kids because I was so determined to read about my favorite team, the Washington Redskins, in The Washington Post sports section.
It should not be surprising then that when I got offered an opportunity to join the NFL as an employee I considered it a dream job. I started out as an Associate Editor with NFL.com in 2007 and eventually made my way up to Senior Associate Editor. After four years, I made the difficult decision to leave my dream job and pursue other career opportunities.
While I learned a lot about the sometimes ruthless business side of the NFL and reality did not exactly mesh with my childhood fantasies about working for “The Shield,” I remained and still remain a huge NFL fan and supporter. It’s still my favorite sport – by far.
It is against that backdrop that I look with sadness at the poor decisions that have led the league to its current predicament.
There has been a growing discontent among much of the public with the NFL for years now. While many of the financial metrics have continued to rise, the steady drum beat of negative publicity has gradually tarnished the league’s reputation.
Whether it be the concussion controversy, the spy-gate fiasco, the Saints’ bounty scandal, the Dolphins’ locker-room bullying saga, star players going to jail, the multiple suicides committed by current and former players, including one in the stadium parking lot in front of team officials by a Chiefs player who had earlier murdered his girlfriend in front of their newborn, or the high-profile arrest of an outspoken owner for DWI; the league has encountered one public relations nightmare after another over the past decade.
Despite all of those issues, the NFL had surprised many critics and continued to thrive – until now.
The egregious mishandling of the Ray Rice situation could very well be the tipping point that begins the NFL’s decline. The league has grown too powerful and too popular to collapse over any one incident, even one this damaging, but 10 years from now we may look back at this as the moment when the NFL began to lose its prestige as the country’s dominant sports (and entertainment) entity.
So many mistakes were made in how the league and the Ravens dealt with Ray Rice that it’s hard to know where to begin:
- First of all, there was the lack of a domestic violence policy. Given the spate of domestic violence incidents that have happened with several players over the past few years, there is no excuse for the league not having already had a disciplinary plan in place for handling domestic violence prior to the Ray Rice case.
- Then there was the Ravens holding an awkward press conference with Ray and Janay Rice in which Ray failed to ever directly apologize to Janay and instead Janay apologized for her actions that led to the attack.
- Then there was the Ravens foolishly live tweeting the press conference and showing little sensitivity to the seriousness of the crime.
- Then there was Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to meet with both Ray and Janay Rice during the league’s investigation into the incident. It is common practice that the victim and the perpetrator are interviewed separately during criminal domestic violence investigations because victims are often too fearful to share their side of the story or speak the truth when in the same room as the perpetrator.
- Then there was Goodell’s decision to suspend Rice only two games for what was obviously a heinous crime that he had to know would capture the nation’s attention.
- Then there were Ravens team officials, including coach John Harbaugh, defending Rice’s character after the suspension, calling him a “heck of a guy.”
- Then there was the NFL, with its world-class security detail and investigative team, saying they were unable to acquire the elevator video showing Rice’s that TMZ posted on its site Monday.
- Then there was the NFL reportedly in possession of the tape, either choosing not to watch it or losing track of it somehow before it got to league leadership, including Goodell.
- Then there was the NFL’s inaction on Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who continues to play after being found guilty of threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend (Hardy is appealing the verdict).
Regardless of whether Goodell ultimately keeps his job, this series of errors will haunt the league for years to come and illustrate problems with the league’s culture that need to be addressed.
The only way so many smart and well-educated successful leaders can make so many crucial mistakes is due to a concept known as “groupthink”. It doesn’t surprise me in the least based on my experience as an employee that NFL officials would think they know best and make decisions without enough input or council from independent advisors.
I want the NFL to succeed, but unless the league learns from this humbling experience and changes the way it thinks and operates, then more issues will be handled poorly and more fans will abandon the sport.