On September 24, 2017, hundreds of NFL players protested before the start of their respective NFL game. Some took to a knee to speak out against police brutality, social and racial injustice. Others linked arms in a show of solidarity against remarks made a few days earlier by the President of the United States. Every player recognized that a movement started by Colin Kaepernick a year earlier had divided a country. Each player was now standing in the eye of the storm with no way out.
Recent reports contend that the NFL is considering putting the onus of policing player protests on the individual teams. A shrewd move by the governing body of the most controversial professional sports league in America. If the NFL moves forward, commissioner Roger Goodell has made the conscious decision to hide from the storm. Goodell's decisions have long been motivated by one simple ideology over everything else: Protect The Shield.
This decision, however, will have the opposite effect. It will put the sole responsibility on its owners, leaving them vulnerable to a debate that has skewed far away from the original message, positioning itself as a debate on "Who is more American?"
The error in Goodell's position is that he is attacking this debate and almost every other controversy he has confronted in his almost 12 years as the head of the NFL as if the league itself was a monolith. Some big corporate structure where the Shield is propped up on a mountaintop as an ill-perceived shining beacon of all that is right in the world. It may have worked in the beginning. Goodell earned the nickname "The Sheriff" after several heavy-handed suspensions and a new hardline approach to dealing with negative attention from outlier players.
That type of grandiose ideology, however, has led to the league shooting itself in the foot on more than one occasion. Once the most profitable and popular league in the country — by a big margin — the last five years have been mired in controversy. The NFL's desire to treat the Shield as if it were the Holy Grail has alienated the two most popular franchises (New England and Dallas), incurred collusion allegations from two prominent NFL players and attracted the ire of the most powerful twitter handle in the United States.
Goodell and the league try to control and monopolize every piece of information that flows in and out of the 32 different team cities, the dozens of countries within the NFL's reach as well as every computer and mobile device wishing to share the league's news and highlights. Goodell's attempts to maintain a stranglehold on its content is in actually strangling its growth and sustainability.
League commissioners like the NBA's Adam Silver recognizes the benefit of allowing the consumer access and freedom to share league content for the betterment of the league. There is a reason why NBA ratings continue to trend upwards, while the three other major leagues continue to search for answers.
“We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals — which are our games…greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.” – Adam Silver (@NBA kicking ass)
— Paul Rabil (@PaulRabil) May 3, 2018
Goodell's ideology has not only hurt the NFL from an access standpoint.
Had the league chosen to support research into CTE and brain trauma in ex-football players there probably would have been fewer comparisons to "Big Tobacco" and less former players suing the league for what amounts to malpractice. Instead, the NFL denied CTE, put out bogus research and tried to discredit doctors looking to protect human beings. A poor look for a league in a violent game.
If the league had given Kaepernick a platform to explain his actions and support him, it would have been able to control the message. The league would have been able to limit the negative attention and show that he was not protesting the Anthem, nor America, nor the troops, but actively trying to spread a message of equality that every American should find easy to support. Instead, the league stayed silent and allowed one act of civil disobedience to mushroom into something with unavoidable dire collateral damage.
The stark reality that Goodell has yet to realize is the league is a co-op. Thirty-two teams share the wealth in a product that was projected to make $14 billion in 2017. Thirty-two different owners look to Goodell, not to pretend he's Moses with the Shield, but to act as a public relations czar. Someone trusted to move and manipulate stories in the best interest of the league. A job Goodell has failed at so miserably since a video of Ray Rice knocking out his wife went public during week one of the 2014 NFL season that he'd make Irwin Mainway blush.
The latest reported decision will take what has been a league-wide issue and filter it down to 32 different weekly headlines. This will cause more harm to the league than good. Instead of one entity and two sides, you will now have 33 different entities with endless possibilities for chaos, unrest and ultimately criticism. It also could affect free agency as well.
both a weak play by the nfl and a dumb one. leaving it to the teams is only going to exacerbate this problem *and* put individual owners in the spotlight in a way they'll regret. https://t.co/Bc6yXsez4L
— El Flaco (@bomani_jones) May 7, 2018
Eric Reid recently filed a collusion grievance against the NFL. Reid, who kneeled next to Kaepernick while both were on the 49ers said in his claim, "At least one club owner has asked pre-employment questions about a player's intent to demonstrate. We believe these questions are improper, given League policy."
"The Collective Bargaining Agreement definitively states that League (NFL) rules supersede any conflicting club rules," it continued.
Should Goodell and the league follow through on its decision to pass the buck to individual teams, each team along with its players could face daily controversies based on their decisions on what is viewed right and wrong in a polarizing time in America.
The NFL has long intermingled family, patriotism and football as some sort of Holy Trinity of the American life. No other sport touts America's Team. No other league has a month celebrating the military — while also charging the Department of Defense for such an honor. Unlike any other professional league, the person singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl is news itself.
Despite the intertwining of the NFL into the fabric of American society, it has been able to stay politically neutral. The political leanings of each owner shrouded in mystery, except for the occasional politician who grabs a seat in an owner's box. Even then, such events are not viewed as political, but rather football fans enjoying America's Game. Should Goodell throw player demonstrations at the hands of the owners, their reactions, policies and comments will be viewed as entirely political and continue to divide (possibly reduce) an already conflicted fan base.
We can all scream about this forever. What’s the end game? Something pragmatic has to happen, something that’s not going to please everyone. https://t.co/KxsA4WdXj0
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) May 7, 2018
Goodell is in the business of maintaining a certain image for the league. In his attempts to Protect the Shield he has smothered its existence. The efforts to control the flow of everything NFL-related has forced the league on an island. Stuck in a bygone era when people faithfully trusted certain institutions without hesitation. In pursuing this dissemination, the league owns everything, good and bad. Now Goodell hopes to shield The Shield from a mess he let fester for too long.
The NFL has long resisted adaptation and change. Goodell, foolishly, continues to run this business under the guise of the wrong model. Incapable of having the vision to see what problems can arise from such a decision. Housing cooperatives can see the benefits of having a board of directors act as intermediaries for tenants. The NFL, on the other hand, has a commissioner who believes he is a CEO, rather than someone who should rationally and instinctively work in the best interests of the league. Not The Shield.
Two weeks after that league-wide protest last September, a mix of owners, players and three union leaders discussed how to resolve a variety of issues, from players' exercising their First Amendment rights to declining ratings, sponsorship complaints, most of which — the owners felt — were Kaepernick-induced. In what has now become its own controversy, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said, "We can't have the inmates running the prison." McNair would later apologize, only to regret that apology this past April.
The issue isn't the "inmates," a problematic word-choice for a predominantly African American workforce. The trouble lies in the fact 32 owners hired a "Sheriff" as commissioner. A "Sheriff" who makes the Vermont State Troopers look like Sherlock Holmes. The reported decision to avoid responsibility and cast it on to the 32 owners has proven one thing; it's not the inmates running the prison, but an inept "Sheriff" and that should be a whole lot scarier.