It’s Time For Roger Goodell To Go

Keith Naughton Public Affairs Consultant
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to go. Not because of how he handled Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson. Not because of the demands of the media and various interest groups. No, Goodell should be fired because he is a terrible executive. He has led the NFL into a social responsibility swamp for which there is no escape. Goodell should be fired because it is in the interests of the owners to do so.

When Goodell first ascended to NFL commissioner, he declared that one of his main efforts would be to focus on off-field player conduct. Apparently Goodell had the idea that he was some great moral crusader in addition to the chief executive of a major commercial organization. There are three main problems with making this moral crusade a focus of the NFL, all of which Goodell should have anticipated: 1) Taking your eye off the ball; 2) Adding risk without hedging; and 3) Assuming everything would work out perfectly (arrogance).

In a column last week, I opined that the overarching problem with the NFL’s new social responsibility mission is that it conflicts with the main missions of promoting football and making a profit. Briefly, when institutions designed for one task attempt another, there is bound to be trouble. They lose focus, stop doing what they do best and perform incompetently in unfamiliar territory. Goodell took his eye off the ball and the results have been awful.

Straying into unfamiliar territory has led to a series of missteps and has stored up trouble for the future. According to the Wall Street Journal, Goodell and the owners insisted the commissioner hold complete power in matters of league discipline. The NFL Players’ Association, the union, sullenly accepted and agreed to the collective bargaining agreement. Good move by the players.  As it stands now, the union can shrug its shoulders at its own members’ conduct since discipline and enforcement are the responsibility of Goodell. If Goodell wants the union now to be part of the process, he’s going to have to give something up. By excluding the union, Goodell failed to hedge his disciplinary risk.

Beyond his failure at managing risk, Goodell failed to consider the consequences of his actions. Every NFL football team every week games out their opponent. They put together a robust game plan that can be altered based on circumstances. Yet it is apparent that Goodell failed to do the same with his big social responsibility mission. Goodell must have assumed that his own intelligence combined with the financial success of the NFL meant that nothing could possibly go wrong.

Consider just a few of the potential problems:

The NFL is utterly unable to make determinations of guilt and innocence when it comes to violent off-field conduct. It is easy to run a drug testing program and enforce the salary cap. But where crimes and their circumstances are not so cut and dried, the NFL is out of its league. The NFL cannot compel witnesses to testify, penalize lying by witnesses or comprehensively collect evidence.

Furthermore, a suspend-now-ask-questions-later policy makes every NFL player a target for extortion. The legal system has a remedy for false accusations: jail for the liar. What is the NFL’s remedy? Nothing.  And, even though no study of any legitimacy puts false accusations as anything more than a small minority of all accusations, they do exist. The first time the NFL interrupts a player’s careers, costs a team revenue and angers fans based on false charges will be the end of its conduct policy and the start of the lawsuits.

In his public relations panic, Goodell has ceded a great deal of power to outside pressure groups who are advocates and not interested in the NFL’s business model. What are the odds victims’ rights groups, who are confronted with harrowing stories every day and have spent years fighting prosecutorial and judicial indifference, will be cooperative partners?

Finally, someday the bottom line and social responsibility will clash in an impossible way. It’s easy to suspend players in the early part of the season, but what happens in the playoffs? What happens next year if Johnny Manziel, leading the Cleveland Browns to their first Super Bowl, is accused of sexual assault the week before Super Sunday? Goodell is setting up the NFL for a potentially epic public relations and financial disaster.

Goodell cannot be reasonably expected to anticipate all possible problems, but he is getting paid $40 million per year. He’s not exactly a management trainee. Given his position, experience and compensation, Goodell should have been much more far-sighted. Besides, Goodell is hardly the only individual who has the ability to manage the NFL, negotiate contracts and build consensus among owners. His predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, got it right. Tagliabue disciplined players but didn’t grandstand about it. Tagliabue knew the NFL was and is foremost a business.

Can Goodell turn the ship around? I don’t think so. He is so committed and identified with his quixotic social responsibility mission that he can’t get away from it. If there is anything that is certain about public figures, it’s that the thing they hate the most is admitting a mistake. The only way for the NFL to slog their way out of this morass is without Roger Goodell.

There’s no doubt about it, Goodell’s got to go.