Will Big Bucks Sway the NFL?

NFL's Roger Goodell

Image courtesy of NBC News

Will Big Bucks Sway the NFL?
| published Sept. 20, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

Social media, a changing journalism environment, and numerous extremely vociferous detractors could hurt the National Football League's bottom line, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faces three domestic violence cases and a child abuse allegation leveled against his players, according to the New York Times.

A recent rash of off-field violence and the league's history of light punishment associated with high-profile athletes has dominated headlines nationwide, finally forcing Goodell to hold a press conference Friday addressing the public's concerns. Assuming a large share of personal responsibility, Goodell apologized for his late arrival to certain issues and his poor decisions associated with recent, troubling events, and the commissioner—now at the center of a storm—promises to revamp the NFL's personal conduct policy and receive better input from professionals when addressing future cases.

When you're running a billion-dollar cash cow, it's hard to fathom that someone isn't telling him that approximately half the fans are female. That high-value market share is understandably thin-skinned concerning accusations of child abuse and charges that NFL players beat the living daylights out of women.

Isn't it also interesting that the league always waits until Friday afternoon before holding a press conference with potentially negative blowback? That's because people are busy preparing for the weekend and news outlets have wrapped up coverage, so now everyone is forced to drop what they were doing and react to him and his actions with little warning. Whatever else has been scheduled for television or radio, or whatever items were expected to be the banner headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper, is immediately shunted aside, and negative reaction to the NFL will become old news more quickly. The NFL learned this from politics.

Still, those advertisers who spend billions marketing their products during NFL games are the tail which wags the dog. Angling to keep his job under difficult circumstances, Goodell realizes somebody has to help the NFL to continue to sell SUVs, chunky soup, toothpaste, credit cards, and beer. It's really that simple, because when advertisers turn their back on the league, owners will have no problem sacrificing the commissioner in hopes of saving their own bacon.

According to the TV ratings firm Nielsen, Anheuser-Busch alone spent an estimated $149 million on advertising in last February’s Super Bowl; Pepsi spends a cool $100 million each year on ads in NFL football. Other mega-spenders include McDonalds, Burger King, Chevrolet, Ford, Nissan, Coca-Cola, and Visa. To become pro football’s premier sponsor, in 2011 Anheuser-Busch signed a six year deal with the NFL worth $1.2 billion. Taken together, these dollar values have the power to punish or reward. Just ask the National Hockey League how things are going over there. Rabid fans, no leadership, and not enough advertising.

Friday's press conference was dominated by withering waves of questions concerning the league's response to former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice's domestic violence incident. The running back knocked out his then-girlfriend in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino/hotel elevator, then bumped her with his foot before dragging her lifeless body into the hallway. Graphic surveillance video surfaced recently, but Friday was the first time Goodell had faced the media concerning the incident since a brief interview on CBS News several weeks ago. In the meantime, the storm has grown tenfold, consuming the narrative of the first weeks of NFL play, overshadowing most national and international news, occupying a wide berth of blog talk and social media conversation, and spurring increasingly loud talk that he should resign.

Goodell intended Friday’s press conference to be a vehicle for finally reclaiming control of the narrative. He acknowledged his handling of the matter was wrong, and he's working to improve the league's responses and punishment policies.

"I am not satisfied with the way we handled it," he said. "I made a mistake. I am not satisfied with the process we went through. I am not satisfied with the conclusion."

Goodell is the top dog in America's biggest sport, so there are numerous haters just praying he loses his job. Therefore there was little surprise that reporters cornered him about various groups clamoring for his resignation.

"I have not (considered resigning)," he said. "I am focused on doing my job. I understand when people are critical of my performance, but we have work to do. I am proud of the opportunity we have to make a difference and do the right thing. We've acknowledged that we need to make changes and now we have to get those changes going."

Goodell hadn't responded publicly since the most graphic video surfaced--security camera imagery captured back in February which clearly shows Rice punching Janay Palmer, and knocking her out cold. His silence increased public criticism, making him look uncaring toward Palmer, compounded by domestic violence accusations against San Francisco 49er Ray McDonald and Carolina Panther Greg Hardy. Tack on child abuse allegations against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, and you're in the eye of a hurricane.

Instead of caring and responding to issues all along, the league is now forced to do what all large corporations do when confronted with a crisis—throw money at the problem while also embracing a litany of altruistic internal programs. Goodell has suddenly discovered the potential advantages of diversity and inclusiveness, grasping at every straw and stopping just short of blurting out “can’t we all just get along?"

On Thursday night, Goodell sent a letter to all 32 teams announcing part of the league's initiative was to begin supporting the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, along with mandating education and training for players and staff on preventing abuse. The letter was the league's follow-up to his promise last month to increase the league's commitment to fight domestic and sexual violence.

I hope Goodell enjoyed the time he chose not to respond to allegations, because the shrill screams of detractors has caused advertisers to run for the hills. The list of sponsors distancing themselves from the league is led by Procter & Gamble, which pulled Crest toothpaste from a campaign in conjunction with the NFL's breast cancer awareness month activities. Goodell's brand will be damaged, because the league panders to its female audience all month, with players wearing pink shoes, arm bands and other equipment during October games.

"Crest believes Breast Cancer Awareness is a critically important program to support women and their health, and, as planned, is making a $100,000 donation to the American Cancer Society for breast cancer awareness and will participate in media and retailer activities to help drive attention to the cause," the company said in a statement. "The brand has decided to cancel on-field activation with NFL teams."

Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's and Visa made critical public statements concerning the league's handling of the Rice suspension, along with the other cases. Anheuser-Busch, the biggest spender when it comes to NFL advertising, stopped just short of threatening to pulls its ad dollars—but everyone heard the sound of that branch creaking. A White House official also addressed the situation with reporters on Friday, saying the league must adopt a zero tolerance stance on violence against women.

"I think everyone would agree that the most recent revelations of abuse by the NFL players is really deeply troubling," a senior administration official said. "And the NFL has an obligation not only to their fans, but to the American people, to properly discipline anyone involved in domestic violence or child abuse, and more broadly gain control of the situation."

The American public can be very forgiving if people just step to a microphone and confront issues, but Goodell chose to remain silent in hopes the matter would blow over. The Thursday night letter was his first large-scale communication since last week, and with the advent of social media that's an eternity. He promised the league is committed to battling domestic and sexual violence on a large scale, but this could be a case of too little too late.

Goodell's letter noted that calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline increased 84 percent during the week of Sept. 8, which was the week the Rice video became public. The hotline was inundated to the extent that some calls went unanswered, so the league will be providing financial support which includes hiring 25 more advocates. Money and promotional support will also be awarded to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, including its Loveisrespect project, a text-messaging hotline for young adults dealing with dating abuse.

League representatives also said educational programs aimed at preventing domestic abuse and sexual violence would begin within a month. A public awareness campaign is also in the works. Hopefully, the league and teams will begin properly vetting players before drafting them, because crime and troubles have dogged many of these people for years. Talent isn't everything. Class and common decency are supposed to be their own reward, but there's a reason the saying goes "nice guys finish last."

Related Thursday Review articles:

What's in a Name?; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review, Features; June 27, 2014.

Celebrating True Sportsmanship; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review, Opinion; November 11, 2013.