The vengeful yet benevolent God: since time immemorial, it’s the binary that’s served as THE management template for despots, dynasties, and, in this modern era, the monolithic, nation-swallowing entity known as the National Football League. Every machination, every institutional control of the NFL is purposely designed to project gleaming omnipotence. The NFL’s ability to metastasize across the synapses that connect our collective national conscience is predicated on this notion of projected power: the physical power of hyper-masculine specimens colliding together with concussive force; the fiscal power of a cabal of billionaires controlling the fortunes of these supermen with non-guaranteed contracts; the virtual power fantasy football bestows upon the pasty, cubicle-shackled drones who, through analytics and active imagination, are able to visualize players as chattel. We Americans gravitate towards it all, because in a world where everything is out of our control, the NFL is control.
Yet, the NFL is also keen on having us believe that cradling this iron fist is a soft, velvet glove of morality: pink ribbons, Mean Joe Green giving a kid a coke and a smile, the irreproachable virtue of the Commissioner’s office – the ultimate arbiter for this playing field of precision-guided violence. It is a powerful intoxicant the NFL serves us, and one that this author is, admittedly, addicted to. But like with any high, there is hell to pay when the buzz wears off, and the events of the past 12 months have shown that the national party with the NFL may finally be over.
In September, after years of denying and disputing what looked to be clear evidence, the NFL was forced to admit that it expects close to 30 percent of its players to end up with brain damage at “notably younger ages” than the general population. The NFL agreed to settle a class-action brain damage lawsuit filed by former players by agreeing to pay them about $190,000 on average, in exchange for virtual immunity from future litigation. Considering the NFL earns around $10 billion annually, one could view the settlement amount as peanuts. Also, a close inspection of the settlement found it riddled with loopholes and onerous conditions that had to be met in order to be eligible for the settlement money. But the NFL soldiered on past this public health calamity, working in conjunction with its media sycophants to remind us of the noble sacrifice its players willingly make on the metaphorical battlefield, and the league’s solemn oath to look after its own, lest we have conflicted feelings about watching preternaturally large and fast men prematurely deliquesce their brain tissue.
While that development dented the NFL shield, the Ray Rice case left a very public facing shit stain on it. Long before we all witnessed Janay Rice getting coldcocked by her then-fiancee on that Atlantic City casino surveillance tape, the extent to which the NFL and its commissioner, and Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, were either willfully disconnected, or blithely indifferent to the gravity of the assault, was already painfully clear. The Ravens official Twitter account tweeted out that Janay Rice “deeply regrets the role she played” in the assault. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti expressed “how sad we all are that he (Ray Rice) tarnished his image.” When commissioner Goodell sat with Ray Rice for a meeting that was pivotal in deciding what kind of punishment the running back would face, not only were several members of Ravens’ brass in the room, Janay Rice was also present. She pleaded her husband’s case, saying the assault on her was an isolated one-time incident. Why would Goodell put domestic-violence victim and abuser in the same room when there is a well-documented history of victims minimizing the culpability of the batterer and succumbing to witness-intimidation tactics in such situations? That’s a question that remains unanswered by the commissioner’s office. When TMZ finally posted the security camera video showing the horrific footage of Janay Rice getting knocked out, the outrage was instant, as was the disbelief at Goodell’s claim he had never seen the video.
The Ray Rice case and settlement of the brain trauma lawsuit were just two of the more prominent episodes of the NFL’s annus horribilis. Sprinkled in along the way, there were child abuse allegations against the star running back Adrian Peterson; complaints of double standards with the league’s drug and alcohol policy after the realtively lenient punishment given to Colts Owner Jim Irsay, who was arrested for DUI and later admitted to a pill addiction; and a growing campaign against Washington team’s use of the derogatory term “Redskins.” By the time the Super Bowl rolled around, the controversy surrounding the underinflated balls used by the New England Patriots in the AFC title game seemed relatively quaint and charming, given all that had preceded it.
Through all of this, a mealy mouthed commissioner Goodell issued bromides and the kid of arbitrary judgments that were seemingly at odds with his measured and precise governance in all matters financial as they relate to the NFL and its owners. What we are left with is the disquieting sense that the NFL views its sacrosanct, inviolate image as something more important than the health and safety of an abused woman, a beaten child, or a struggling addict in need of support. We are left wondering what happened to the moral clarity football is supposed to provide us with; its power to reduce all those shades of grey in life to a simple contest between us vs. them; its power to, for a few precious beer-soaked hours, spare us from reality?
The idea of protecting the brand is something that I, as a brand strategist, can relate and aspire to. But after this season, the NFL and its legion of media minions must ask at what price do you protect the brand? At what point do you acknowledge the existential problems that exist within the larger framework of a violent game that has been the centerpiece of the American sports psyche? At what point does your brand no longer meet a need or make a positive impact, and start existing merely for its own self-perpetuation? It’s a question that goes beyond the NFL brand. It is a question we can raise about so many institutions: Congress, higher education, banking, and the list goes on. Like those centerpieces of American life, the NFL may be too big to fail, but it’s also shown that it’s deluded enough to be enthralled by its own power.