It didn’t quite work out that way. Fans and players reacted bitterly to the blown calls by the replacement refs. Goodell held firm as the regular season progressed. Finally, probably the worst call in the history of professional football cost the Green Bay Packers a loss against the Seattle Seahawks during the season’s fifth week. The massive outcry gave the real referees huge leverage and Goodell was forced to do whatever it took to get them back on the field. Again, a lack of balance between owners’ interests and those of the players and the fans forced a Goodell fumble.
Finally, there was Bountygate: the scandal surrounding the discovery that the New Orleans Saints’ defensive unit had been giving out cash incentives to its players for injuring opponents, primarily star quarterbacks. Goodell came down like a ton of bricks on the alleged culprits, meting out long suspensions for those most centrally involved.
The accused players opted to fight their suspensions in court, where Goodell stuck to his guns. Eventually, the courts sided with the players and voided the suspensions. Afterward, Goodell pressed on, re-establishing the NFL’s sanctions with some small changes. Finally, in the face of continued player pressure and the threat of more legal action, Goodell appointed Paul Tagliabue, his predecessor, to adjudicate the matter internally. In a stunning move, Tagliabue overturned all the player suspensions, attributing primary blame for the bounty program to the coaches.
The outcome represented a significant rebuke to Goodell and a huge blow to his reputation with the players. As with the exhibition games controversy, Goodell showed too little balance, this time between his outrage-fueled desire to show fans he would punish those involved and the need, as the NFL’s leader, to protect the due process the accused players were owed.
Goodell may believe that his job, as he told Time Magazine in a recent cover story, “is a balancing act.” But the past couple of years have showed he’s not always so adept at finding the critical equilibrium that leadership requires. Indeed, the very skill that helped him and his predecessors build the NFL into such a powerhouse industry—a single-minded focus on the fan experience—could also hurt him when it comes to navigating the recent high-stakes crises he’s faced.
No one can or should expect perfection. Leadership is an inherently imperfect art and an always precarious high-wire act. But Goodell’s performance this year reminds us that leadership requires seeking a delicate balance over and over, and that there is no singular, more-is-better formula. The NFL commissioner is right to seek an optimal fan experience. But when doing so causes the needs of others to fade into oblivion, he’s probably setting himself up for a loss.
is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and the author of several books, including “Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes and What Capitalism can Learn from the NFL” and his February 2013 release co-authored with A.G. Lafley, “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.”