Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
We are approximately ten months into the Roger Goodell era and arguably the most significant development has been the controversial and often-discussed personal conduct policy for NFL players. (I don’t consider the international expansion of the sport, including the recently aborted China Project and next year’s London Game to be a Goodell decision, but a remnant of Tagliabue’s brilliant reign as commissioner.) My question is whether the policy, in its admitted infancy, has had its intended effect.
As my esteemed colleague has previously noted in this space, Goodell’s desire in enacting this new conduct policy was to limit the negative publicity caused by NFL players’ criminal conduct for the league. After witnessing the collapse of historically strong leagues like hockey and boxing, after watching the NBA’s popularity sharply decline after the “Pistons Brawl,” and after MLB has had to wrestle with the publicity pariah that is steroids, the NFL commissioner knew that swift and strong action was necessary. In order to limit the NFL’s exposure from players’ criminal actions and to maintain the NFL’s prominent position among the professional sports leagues, Goodell, with assistance from selected players and the players union, created a policy where the commissioner has discretion to enact penalties, including suspension, not based on but colored by allegations of criminal conduct. All appeals will be heard by Goodell.
Setting aside the potential legal issues which arise from an employer limiting an employee from earning their pay based on criminal allegations not convictions, this policy was enacted primarily to protect the NFL’s image and to limit the media’s attention to the conduct of NFL players off the field. Based on my highly unscientific examination of the policy in action the last three-plus months, this has not been the result. In fact, media coverage of NFL players’ off-the-field conduct has, in my opinion, increased significantly based on the new policy.
Instead of a solitary news report about a player being arrested or investigated or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, we are now inundated with continuing coverage. The player’s initial conduct is just the tip of the iceberg. Now, the sports media may turn its attention to whether such allegations or conduct will qualify as prohibited under the new policy. Then, there is the discussion of when the player will meet with Goodell. After the meeting, there comes the discussion of how long the potential suspension will be. With respect to the four NFL players most discussed in light of the conduct policy (Chris Henry, “Pacman” Jones, “Tank” Johnson, and Michael Vick), these men have provided the media with an unending supply of topics for discussion and dissection. I would hypothesize that if all of their transgressions occurred a year ago, they would have been regarded as mere blips on the sports reporting radar, commented on as representative of the disintegration of players’ morality, and then moved on to the next highlight or lowlight from sports. Instead, when one hears of an NFL player’s illicit activity, we, as consumers of all things sports, know that this is the beginning of what will be weeks of coverage and analysis.
Goodell has essentially asked the public to ignore the man behind the curtain and the machinations that are his decision-making process in coming up with personal conduct punishments and instead focus on the cleaner, more socially acceptable NFL image that this policy creates. Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon.
Now, I will concede that the recent media frenzy over Goodell’s decision-making process could be a one-time thing as the policy is new and therefore any suspension can be considered early precedent for future violators. Additionally, the nature of dog-fighting and the apparent acceptance of this practice by certain players in the NFL has also been a contributor to the fervent nature of the coverage of Michael Vick’s recent legal problems. Finally, Goodell could argue that this short-term negative attention is necessary for a long-term cleaner image for the league.
However, I don’t believe this is a one-time deal or specific to the facts of the crimes at issue with these recent problem children of the NFL. Instead, I think that Goodell’s policy has opened up the flood gates of publicity and discussion to focus on the worst examples of NFL role-models specifically in the off-season. This policy has not cleaned up the NFL’s image, but instead has put these crimes as sports headlines for the past months and will do so in the future.
They say that any publicity is good publicity. For the NFL’s sake, let’s hope that is true. Five years ago, there was no NFL news from February to July with the exception of the draft. This year’s off-season has had these bad actors and the new personal conduct policy as the lead story many nights on SportsCenter during what should be the news hibernation of the NFL. These are not the headlines one wants for your league, but it has allowed the NFL to stay in the public consciousness. The question now is: At what cost?