After a grueling 2011, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell might have hoped for quieter, gentler times to follow.
But it was not to be. Between the mounting pressure over endemic head injuries in football, the furor over replacement referees and a ‘Bountygate’ scandal that embarrassed the league, last year made Goodell’s successful negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players in 2011 look easier than kicking a 20-yard field goal.
The difficult challenges Goodell has faced recently did, however, give me a chance to reexamine praise I’ve bestowed on him before. In my 2011 book, “Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes and What Capitalism can Learn from the NFL,” I lauded Goodell, as well as his predecessors Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, for maintaining a laser-like focus on the fan experience over their half-century at the helm of the NFL. And indeed, the league’s astonishing success—the NFL, now a $9 billion industry, is immensely profitable—proves the single-minded strategy has helped to build a blockbuster business.
But the series of tough choices Goodell has been forced to make since my book’s completion illustrate the problems for leaders who focus too much on one thing. At times, Goodell has overemphasized the fan experience to the detriment of players. At other moments, he’s lost focus on the fans, giving too much preference to owners’ interests. Another major scandal highlighted Goodell’s unbalanced treatment of accused players and his emotional rush to judgment.
Consider his 2011 negotiations with the players’ league. In them, Goodell aggressively bargained to convert two preseason matchups into regular season games. Making the change would have lowered the number of preseason games from four to two, increasing the regular season to 18 games, rather than 16. The rationale was fan experience. NFL devotees aren’t enamored with the half-hearted efforts and third-string players featured in most preseason exhibitions. Adding more regular season games, Goodell’s thinking went, would please the fans, which in due course would raise profits for the owners.
But he didn’t do enough to think through how an extended regular season would sit with the players, and the plan was rejected. Players saw the proposal as a danger to their health and welfare, extending an already brutally long season. The proposal undermined the apparent sincerity of Goodell’s efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of head injuries in the league, an issue that has gone from serious to white-hot in 2012. In the end, more balance was needed from Goodell in making this decision. A better fan experience shouldn’t have completely trumped player health and welfare.
Then in 2012, Goodell locked out the NFL’s unionized referees as bargaining reached an impasse during the spring and summer. Here, Goodell clearly put the owners’ interests first. He assumed that the negative impact to fans and players of using replacement referees would be minimal and that the “real referees,” as they came to be called, would be forced to ameliorate their demands, saving the owners money.
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.
Roger Martin 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.”