- Even with a controversy that should have been easily addressed, Roger Goodell continued to follow the missteps of his previous failed crisis management tactics.
ATLANTA – Roger Goodell has two constituencies: you and the one he actually serves. In the past two weeks, he has let them both down. Fans want an explanation for the officiating debacle in New Orleans. Owners deserve a league that defends its integrity. Goodell easily could have done both. Unfortunately, his approach to crisis management is to get out in front of a crisis, then let it run him over.
And so here we are, a week and a half later, waiting for Goodell’s annual State of the League press conference. The event is usually so well-planned and predictable that he might as well lip-sync his answers. I have attended at least a half dozen of these and don’t remember him stumbling through a sentence. What is remarkable this time is that the answer is easy and obvious to give … and he still botched it by waiting too long.
This is all he has to say: “We have the best referees in the world. We also have some of the best athletes in the world, and the best camera angles in the world, and sometimes these combine to make the best referees in the world look bad, when in fact they are just human. The refs in New Orleans made a big mistake at a lousy time. I feel awful for the Saints. But I don’t question our officials’ integrity or intentions. It was an honest mistake. We will continue to look at ways to improve our replay system, as we do every year.”
That last paragraph is entirely reasonable and accurate. But Goodell should have said it last week, before the Saints changed their official logo to a crying baby, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy demanded that Goodell remove at least two vital organs without anesthesia and Saints fans swore they would go on a hunger strike if the food in New Orleans weren’t so tasty. Instead, Goodell was silent. There was no official counterargument to ESPN’s report that people in the league are worried too many officials in the Rams’ win are from Southern California.
Nobody works for years as a high school, college and then NFL referee, then does that well enough to get a playoff assignment, then decides at the game’s most crucial moment to humiliate themselves by purposely botching a call to help the team that moved back to the area where they lived a couple years ago. That just doesn’t make any sense. But I don’t doubt that people are talking about it. When there is a leadership void, it gets filled in the strangest ways.
Goodell has done an impressive job of growing the league’s revenues, which is why NFL owners remain loyal to him. We keep thinking they should replace him with somebody who puts fans first, but why would they do that? They’re more likely to vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Still, there is a public aspect to the commissioner’s job, and Goodell has continually failed at it. This is the key point that owners and Goodell seem to miss: he can be a more open and honest leader and still make billions for billionaires. The occasional conference call or candid answer is not going to destroy the next TV deal.
Goodell has wrestled with a lot of controversies in his tenure, and they are not all related and are certainly not all his doing, but there tends to be a common theme: they explode and the smoke lingers. Ray Rice’s arrest, Richie Incognito’s alleged bullying, Bountygate, Spygate, and soon, maybe Kareem Hunt … nothing fades quickly in this league. Goodell would have fewer PR headaches if he consistently tried to get to the bottom of stories himself and took the hit.
You could not find more disparate controversies than Deflategate and Colin Kaepernick’s protests—one was silly, the other quite serious. But in both cases, the league botched the response.
If Goodell had penalized the Patriots for Deflategate and left Tom Brady out of it, he would have pleased the teams looking to punish the Pats, saved his premier player the embarrassment of a questionable suspension and ended the whole thing in a couple months. Instead it lingered for more than a year.
And if Goodell had made it clear to owners, players and the public that he didn’t agree with Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem, but respected his right to do so, and he expected all the teams to respect it, the league would have been better off. Instead of operating in fear of a fear-mongering President, NFL owners should have privately threatened to withhold their donations to Donald Trump and the GOP until he left them alone. Instead, here we are three years later, Kaepernick is suing the league for collusion, some of the most famous entertainers in America are upset with musicians for performing at halftime of the Super Bowl … and Trump is still ripping the league whenever it’s convenient for him. Put aside your political beliefs for a moment and, tell me: from a business perspective, could the NFL have handled this worse than it did?
There will be the usual anticipation for Goodell’s press conference, and the room will probably be packed. We expect tension. But history tells us that Goodell manages this setting quite well. The rest of the year is the problem.