The NFL: A Runaway Train

Wreck imminent. (BigStock) I don’t personally know NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Every opinion I have about him as a person and the leader of the NFL is gleaned from third-party sources. But I’ll say this – based on everything I’ve read and heard, he’s one of four things: unfathomably stubborn, exceedingly arrogant, amazingly delusional, deeply incompetent … or all of the above.

Now that the NFL season is in the rear view mirror, you don’t need to be a practitioner of hyperbole to call it one of the most exhausting and trying seasons in decades. Back in September, I wrote about how the months leading up to the 2014 season were a PR disaster for the league. Well, if you’re an NFL fan, this season was the campaign that really tested how much you were willing to tolerate to remain a devout follower of the sport. This season ran the gamut of depressing incidents: horrific domestic abuse cases (both against women and children); supposed cover-ups (or incompetence) by the league office in response to those cases; allegations of cheating against the eventual Super Bowl champions; and the disclosure of more grisly details around the toll the game has taken on ex-players. And at every turn, Goodell appeared to fumble every opportunity he had to address these incidents and mitigate their effects. It reached the point where the average person on the street probably thought they could do Goodell’s job better than him. I know I did.

And yet, the juggernaut that is the NFL rolled on, remaining as popular and lucrative as ever. Heck, this year’s Super Bowl was the most watched broadcast of any kind in U.S. TV history. It’s almost as if this past season was a science experiment to test how many public relations blunders a business could withstand before it buckled. The results for the NFL: they’re gonna need a lot more blunders.

Those blunders will come, as Goodell undoubtedly has some PR mishaps in front of him: while he’s delivering those ever-valuable profits to his bosses – the owners of the 32 franchises – he has a knack for making uninformed, knee-jerk decisions that cause him far more trouble further down the road and alienate the league’s fans and players. But here’s the thing: due to its popularity and ability to pretty much print money, the NFL is akin to a runaway train – it doesn’t need a driver, and it’s going to steamroll over any trouble it encounters on the tracks. It’s important to remember, though, that runaway trains don’t run forever. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said that the NFL “is 10 years away from an implosion.” Parents are increasingly forbidding their kids from playing football, thereby drying up the talent pool – President Obama is one of those parents. And the issue of the far-reaching effects concussions are having on ex-players is only going to grow as the years go by.

So what can the NFL do to avoid its potential demise, or at the very least, improve its image and keep the league alive and kicking? Let’s face it: the NFL faces a communications challenge so daunting that even the most skilled marketers on Earth couldn’t completely right the ship. But as with any organization faced with image issues, the league should take it one piece at a time. My advice to the NFL? Be more transparent, honest, and frankly, ethical in your day-to-day operations. Admit that you’ve had significant challenges managing player safety, appropriately addressing cases of domestic violence, and administering consistent disciplinary punishments. These issues deserve more than half-hearted lip service. At this point, Goodell’s reputation is so tainted that ANY attempt to show remorse and a desire to get things right will be a breath of fresh air.

At the end of the day, if you’re Roger Goodell right now, you’re probably sitting in your plush office in New York City and feeling a sense of invincibility: “If my league can survive this season, it can survive ANYTHING.” And for now, that’s true. It was the season from hell, but not really. But at some point, that runaway train will need to be corralled, and if Goodell has taught us anything, it’s that right now he’s not the guy equipped to apply the brakes.