Monday, February 02, 2015

The NFL and Its Ethics Problem

The commissioners of the major professional sports leagues have been in the news quite a bit lately. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner who replaced David Stern a year ago, has received high marks for his first year in office. The biggest items he's currently dealing with are the idea to add four new basketball franchises in Europe and whether to expand the NBA All-Star rosters. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is routinely booed at the NHL All-Star Game and when presenting the Stanley Cup, has actually done a great job of diminishing the role of fighting in the league and has significantly grown the NHL's annual revenue from increased ticket sales, TV contracts and apparel sales. Rob Manfred, the new commissioner of Major League Baseball who replaced Bud Selig, just started his new post and his biggest controversy to date is whether to ban infield defensive shifts.

That brings us to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. It seems that when Goodell isn't dealing with the off-season arrests of his pro football players for everything from drugs and rape to weapons and drunk driving, he's embattled in cheating scandals and lawsuits of former players who barely remember their playing days due to their many concussions.

Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner and Ethics Problem

The NFL's ethics problem isn't new. Eleven years ago, back in February 2004 after Janet Jackson revealed too much during the Super Bowl halftime show, I wrote on this blog that, "So many people are citing this year's Super Bowl as proof of a complete absence of dignity and moral behavior in our society." I then quoted New Jersey Jewish News Editor Andrew Silow-Carroll's argument about the Super Bowl. He wrote, "I hate to sound like a prude, but this year’s Super Bowl was an assault of tasteless, inappropriate, and uncomfortable images — and we missed the half-time show! Like most viewers, I used to look forward to the Super Bowl commercials. But that was before advertisers seemed to decide that the country’s most powerful economic cohort lives in frat houses."

I'm willing to put aside the Deflategate cheating scandal, the risque halftime shows during the Super Bowl and the oversexed, inappropriate commercials in order to focus on the real issues at hand. The NFL needs to clean up its act. In a recent episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO, the sports commentator interviewed several members of the 1985 Chicago Bears. That championship team was one of the toughest teams in NFL history, but these players' ongoing struggles are anything but tough.

The team's quarterback Jim McMahon said that if he owned a gun, he would have committed suicide -- an all too common act for many retired NFL players. McMahon opened up about the many painkillers he took because of all the injuries he sustained while playing. The coach of that legendary team, Mike Ditka, didn't have to think too long when to responded to a question posed by Gumbel about whether he would let his own children play football. His answer was a resounding "no." The issue of concussions in football is a very serious one. Sure, concussions can happen in many other sports as well from kids' sports leagues all the way up to the professional level. However, only in tackle football are the players intentionally butting heads with each other. New helmet technology is coming, but the results of these closed head injuries to former players is alarming... and very sad.

Commissioner Goodell has done a great job bringing worldwide attention to the NFL. Over 110 million people tune in to watch the Super Bowl, tickets for the "Big Game" go for thousands of dollars, league owners can sell their team for over a billion dollars, and he has successfully brought the NFL to London with regular season games. What Goodell has not done is fix his league's ethics problem. The off-the-field indiscretions of his players need to be curbed. This year it was the Ray Rice scandal in which domestic abuse turned into whether the league had seen a surveillance video of the assault or not. The focus became on Goodell's punishment of the athlete rather than the crime itself. With the many arrests (24 NFL players were arrested during the 2014 off-season), it would be the understatement of the year to say that NFL players are not good role models for children.

I think former NBA commissioner David Stern did an admirable job curbing the NBA's ethics problem with his NBA Cares campaign. Rather than seeing NBA players in courtrooms for drunk driving and weapons arrests, we saw them volunteering in their communities. The NFL is very successful from a money standpoint, but Goodell needs to reign in these problems. I hope he will begin to tackle what I see as three major ethical problems: 1) The health and safety of players -- both current and former; 2) The criminal image of NFL players -- both on the field and off; 3) The moral dignity of the NFL -- modeling positive behavior for kids and ensuring that the pro football fan experience is an appropriate one for families. Goodell's got his work cut out for him and so do the NFL's millions of fans because they will have to hold the league to a higher standard and be willing to push for these changes.

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