Hubris and Hogwash

Wednesday September 17th, 2014

Upon further review, maybe Mark Cuban had it right. Not that the NFL is headed for implosion in another 10 years, or that oversaturating the game on TV will prove to be the league’s big misstep looming on the horizon. That kind of doomsday scenario is far from likely.

But as the worst month in NFL history continues to unravel more than unfold, perhaps hubris is the sin Cuban was really talking about, the one that could knock the too-big-to-fail league from its lofty perch. In a big-picture way, that is what the always outspoken owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks was riffing on back in March, when he gave us that colorful barnyard analogy that likened the all-powerful and ever-prosperous NFL to pigs getting fat and hogs getting slaughtered.

His larger point was that a league that gets too confident in its own sense of invincibility and too convinced of its own superiority tends to grow a bit fat and sassy, and could wind up being found guilty of overreaching in pursuit of profits and under-responding in terms of responsibility. It could easily slide toward arrogance and fail to see the potential for its own mistakes.

Sound like any insanely popular, money-making monolith you might know?

IT’S PAST TIME, COMMISSIONER: Roger Goodell must come out of hiding and address his critics

Cuban, of course, was scoffed and sneered at for daring to issue such a warning. He was accused of blatant NFL envy and derided as a spotlight-loving opportunist who sought attention via incendiary words and headlines. He couldn’t be serious, could he? The mighty NFL, made vulnerable? Not only could we not remember a time when that was truly the case, we couldn’t even imagine such a scenario going forward.

But we’re starting to now, aren’t we? With Roger Goodell and the league office still reeling from the mishandling of domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald and Adrian Peterson, you could say the NFL and at least four very embattled franchises are starting to bleed like a stuck pig. Perhaps Cuban’s analogy was more apt than he knew.

Where are the owners, who get to hold the shiny trophy aloft on a confetti-strewn Super Bowl stage, but beg off from taking the stage in front of the cameras and the microphones when the lights get too bright and the questions too hot to handle?

Just six months after firing that salvo at the NFL, Cuban’s words look prophetic. And his criticism can no longer be dismissed as the off-key ravings of an eccentric, media-loving NBA owner who loves to hear himself quoted. The NFL brand has been weakened in recent days by off-field controversies that continue to swirl, and any good capitalist will tell you that protecting the brand is the first critical step toward protecting your business. What ever happened to protecting the shield?

A longtime and well-respected agent I know told me the NFL’s initial tone-deaf response to Rice’s domestic violence incident brought to mind the saying, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In other words, people or leagues that hold too much power often succumb to arrogance, and arrogance leads them in a lot of directions, most of them bad. Imbued with the kind of endless big money that often taints everything it touches, they start to believe their judgments are always correct, their wisdom infallible; they become immune to the correcting forces of competition. They live and act as if they are unchallenged, and that never ends well.

HIS CREDIBILITY IS SHOT: Roger Goodell told the Saints that ignorance was not a suitable defense in the Bountygate scandal. The NFL commissioner is now using that same defense

You can see just how much of a bulletproof mentality the NFL had fashioned for itself in its pre-Rice reality by the league’s crouching, defensive response to the siege of bad news it has endured. Goodell and his staff have largely been stunned and shocked into a state of virtual silence, offering little if any real leadership and merely reacting to the next spate of negative headlines with a string of statements, the naming of a special investigation of the league’s own investigation, a new panel of women advisers, or a new lobbyist in Washington. Those kind of damage control moves always seemed to work in the past to defuse whatever crisis the NFL had faced. But this time they ring hollow, the issues having grown to a critical mass that can’t be easily slowed.

In turn, perhaps taking their cue from a flinching league office, the NFL owners whose clubs are involved in these high-profile domestic violence cases have done little but hide behind their coaches and general managers, sending them out to meet the media and defend decisions that were made above their pay grades. Where are the owners, those masters of the universe who get to hold the shiny trophy aloft on a confetti-strewn Super Bowl stage, but beg off from taking the stage in front of the cameras and the microphones when the lights get too bright and the questions too hot to handle?

It’s pretty clear the powers that be in the NFL aren’t used to being challenged, don’t like it one bit, and aren’t comfortable in the new reality they face.

I found it utterly small of Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to send his coach, John Harbaugh, out there alone last week to answer questions about why the team dramatically reversed course and released Rice in the wake of the new elevator surveillance footage. Carolina’s Jerry Richardson cried for us at an awards banquet, but he really didn’t explain his team’s stance on Greg Hardy, leaving coach Ron Rivera to repeatedly face the music.

Ditto in Minnesota, where general manager Rick Spielman was trotted out in a press conference to sell the Vikings’ unpopular decision to reactivate Peterson, a course quickly abandoned after owners Zygi and Mark Wilf realized the full extent of Tuesday’s public and corporate blowback. (The Wilfs were scheduled to address the media today to explain why they put Peterson on the exempt list.) So far in San Francisco, all we’ve heard from owner Jed York regarding McDonald’s case came in a brief radio interview, while his coach, Jim Harbaugh, has been peppered with questions going on two weeks now.

GOODELL UNDER SIEGE: The cries for Roger Goodell's resignation are reverberating across the football world after the AP reported the league office had indeed received the second Ray Rice video

Statements have been issued, and one-on-one interviews with hand-picked outlets have been arranged, but no real accountability has been on display by the owners. They are the stewards of their franchises, and yet, when it came time to be leaders, they shrunk from that role. In a league that fines coaches and players if they don’t stand up and take the media’s questions, the commissioner and the owners have yet to hold themselves to that same standard—let alone a higher one.

It’s pretty clear the powers that be in the NFL aren’t used to being challenged, don’t like it one bit, and aren’t comfortable in the new reality they face. They are, to use Cuban’s imagery, looking quite “hoggy” in their response to this multifaceted controversy, unable to move nimbly and quickly enough to navigate the necessary steps to get past it. And they’re getting slaughtered in the court of public opinion because of their arrogance.

Sorry, NFL, but you brought this upon yourself. And you can’t say you weren’t warned.

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