The National Football League made a clear and undeniable mistake in its initial handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. Even prior to the full video release by TMZ, it is nearly impossible to rationalize a 2 game suspension with any other comparator for bad behavior and its respective punishment. The Baltimore Ravens did the right thing in cutting Ray Rice and the NFL also should be praised for it’s indefinite suspension of Ray Rice from the League.

A Need for Better Process

This video leaves no alternative. Yet, the most interesting question isn’t about punishment or individual accountability but, rather, how does the NFL fix it’s system to ensure it’s process better prevents these heinous acts from happening and to establish a clear organizational culture that bad behavior will not be tolerated in it’s league? No level of talent should skew the moral compass from it’s directional accuracy. .

Here are a few steps the NFL should take immediately to re-establish trust that it can competently manage it’s issues.

Don’t PR your way out of it

The NFL has incredible resources to help manage it’s narrative for on-field and off-field happenings. It’s part of what they do quite well in the sports industry. Yet, where mistakes are made and bad things happen there truly is no substitute for authenticity and acknowledging the mistakes that have been made. On no planet is the initial 2-game suspension defensible. Even if there may have been concern about what disciplinary rules might have allowed for based on evidence at hand, it is far better to err on the side of fair, transparent process and decisions that make sense. My hope in the days ahead is that the tone of the public conversation from the NFL changes on this matter. It shouldn’t be a matter of, “well had we known then what we know now” spin. A bad decision was made even with whatever level of information was available at the time. Own it, be clear about this, and apologize with clear steps to help ensure that things will be different next time.

Assess the Problem

It’s time for a deep assessment of how prevalent domestic violence is in the NFL. The NFL has an opportunity to truly be at the forefront of domestic violence prevention. Bring in the right experts to gather this data. Seek it out, actively. It’s not that the NFL necessarily has a higher rate of domestic violence (see research which argues it’s quite below the national average), but the NFL must accept that it’s visibility imposes a different standard of tolerance than for the rest of the world. Frankly, it would make sense to assess across an array of concerns and life skills to establish a baseline from which to improve.

Fix the Problem

The NFL’s tougher stance announced in August is a good start. How effective are the programs in place? What’s working and what’s not working? Check for efficacy continuously and adapt to make improvements wherever and whenever possible. The NFL Lifeline and NFL Total Wellness programs all sound good. They might very well be great. Make sure they are.  These are great places to invest resources and it takes time for all of these programs to truly permeate the culture of the NFL and it’s players, families, and staff.

Consider a Sports Ombudsman Program

Organizational sports ombuds programs are designed to:

  • Uncover serious problems;
  • Resolve issues as promptly, informally, and fairly as possible;
  • Identify issues and trends and;
  • Initiate organization enhancing change.

Having a trusted resource available to help identify a range of options in any situation is critical. Many struggle to self-identify with a particular support resource they need and an ombudsman can informally handle everything from the mundane to the critical as part of the solution set made available to the NFL community.

No Substitute for Good Process and Good Decisions

The NFL is incredibly resilient. The past year has been filled with concerns around concussions, off-field incidents, locker room culture, and more and the league thrives from a business standpoint. Yet, ultimately, sustainable success will depend on violating some of the PR spin and transparently acknowledging flaws and mistakes. Nobody expects perfection but they do want to trust that broken processes will be fixed and bad decisions will be owned.


Author: Joshua Gordon