A leadership fumble

Director of Leadership Ethics Ann Skeet counts the ways NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has missed leadership opportunities, including the latest crisis over domestic violence. This article first appeared on Sept. 19 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Has National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell missed leadership opportunities before and during the NFL’s current crisis over domestic violence? Oh, let me count the ways.

Goodell failed to set standards of behavior for the gladiators of the gridiron we know as NFL players, failed to create a healthy ethical culture for league personnel, and missed out on the chance to lead a national dialogue on preventing domestic violence.

The problem is clear in the handling of Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back now serving an indefinite suspension from the league for assaulting his then-fiancé. At a July news conference following his initial two-game suspension over the incident, Rice himself stated, “My job is to lead my family, my job is to lead my wife, my job is to lead in whatever I do. And if I’m not being the example, then my family crumbles.”

Rice, at least, recognizes that the crux of the matter is leadership.

Ethical leadership means acting ethically and setting the standard for others. Leaders can inspire people not only to do the right thing but also to consider the kind of people they want to be. Goodell, apparently, missed this memo.

As chief operating officer for the league under Paul Tagliabue, Goodell had ample opportunity to demonstrate his business prowess. NFL owners voted him in as commissioner relatively quickly by NFL standards. As commissioner, however, he has failed to provide institutional leadership or demonstrate his own personal leadership.

Goodell failed to guide policy development on acceptable behavior from players and to set clear boundaries with consistently applied consequences for breaching them. This is what leaders operating within an ethical framework are expected to do. He is only beginning to focus on this work. The NFL announced that he has invited four women to help him set league policies, and on Sept. 19 Goodell added an apology to the mix.

Goodell also failed to ask the right questions, one of the most powerful tools leaders have for demonstrating what is important to them. Why are so many NFL players breaking the law? Not just domestic violence laws, but others as well?

Goodell should be asking questions like this because he wears the institutional leadership hat for the NFL and must look out for its centrally driven revenue model. More than any other league, the NFL itself is expected to generate much of the revenue through media deals, product licensing, and shared gate receipts, distributing that money evenly to the teams. Behavior by players on a single team can influence the revenue available for all.

But Goodell has missed an even greater opportunity. The NFL is an influential American institution. In recent years, it has found the global stage by playing games abroad. With that kind of reach, the commissioner has unique influence to provide societal leadership broadly.

Imagine how different the conversation would be if the NFL had adopted ending domestic violence as part of its agenda proactively, rather than having its hand forced by a sordid video released by TMZ. What would that look like?

To begin with, the league might take a hard look at the advertisements that play during games. Too many portray women as sex symbols and glorify violence. Placing limits on this might hurt business in the short term. Given the country’s love affair with football, however, it is more likely that advertisers will toe whatever line the NFL draws.

Without such changes, the image of professional football will continue to take its own beating.

Ann Skeet is director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She wrote this for the San Jose Mecury News.

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