ESPN's Bottom Line - Version 2.0

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Football Needs to Get Serious

The NFL's past three Walter Payton "Man of the Year" recipients Charles Tillman, Jason Witten, and Matt Birk.  These are good guys who positively impact their community at large and they are the guys who deserve our attention.

The NFL has been under tremendous scrutiny for how it's handled a few issues with players and an owner recently.  My point here is not to get into specifics about any of those incidents and subsequent punishments but rather look at what the NFL should be doing to elevate the conversation currently taking place about the league and the sport above what it's being reduced to by a handful of individuals.  We can all agree that domestic violence, child abuse, illegal drug use, and driving while impaired are despicable acts that should in no way be condoned, trivialized, or dismissed by any person or company.

At the heart of the matter, the NFL is a for profit entertainment conglomerate.  There are 32 privately owned (well Green Bay is public but that doesn't matter here) companies that operate as the NFL.  Their product is entertainment.  They put on a show, sell licensed paraphernalia, and generate media which is extremely popular.  The popularity is what enables the NFL to be a $10b business this year.  

The NFL is as popular as it is because it is an extremely selective employer, has an incredible talent pool, and it is structured to create a very level playing field for teams which begets exciting close games on a weekly basis that spectators cannot get enough of.  This is what drives the NFL.  

In order to preserve the main drivers of popularity and therefor revenue, the NFL needs to concern itself with how the very people clamoring for their product perceive it as a whole and this is where they are currently missing the boat.  In terms of public perception, what casual sports fan is excited to say that they are an unabashed fan of the league right now?  Whether trying to or not, the league is affiliated with abuse, cover-ups, and greed at the moment.  It doesn't have to be that way though.
Players from the St. Louis Rams who are deserving of our attention seen here helping to rebuild Joplin Missouri after a devastating tornado.  
Marketers tend to throw heaps of money at the leagues biggest "stars" on an annual basis and align their products with those stars often heroic, quirky, and ultimately fan-friendly images.  There have been seven big issues with NFL representatives running afoul of the law in the recent past thereby flying in the face of that fan-friendly imagery.  The most notable incidents also happen to be have come from biggest stars along with one owner and I'd argue that most of the reason there is a public outcry right now is because it seems that the league is trying to go light on it's star players in order to keep them on the field regardless of what they've done off it. In my opinion they are doing this under the incorrect assumption that fans watch the games only to see the biggest stars and because their biggest sponsors have said heaps of money tied to those stars.

We mentioned previously that the NFL is popular in part due to the caliber of player that makes it through the selection process to even make it into the lineup.  My point is that if even the star players (let alone role players) who run afoul of the law or public perception are removed entirely, the NFL and the public will find new stars.  How long did it take Eagles fans to move from Brian Westbrook, one of the greatest Running Backs to ever wear an Eagles jersey to LeSean McCoy?  Not long at all.  That's kind of sad for Brian Westbrook but it's great news for the Eagles and the NFL.  The fans can move on.  Being aggressive with the discipline might cause a ripple and some anger from the biggest fans initially but as evidenced in plenty of previous examples, the fans will move on and in the long run the league and the sponsors will be even more popular for it.

The league should come down hard on all egregious acts by players and owners.  It needs to stamp out the kind of despicable acts that are currently playing on repeat on every TV screen as well as anything that can negatively impact the league.  Why should it allow players or owners (who are all essentially brand ambassadors as much as they are players/owners/competitors) to continue to represent their teams and the league when they are an embarrassment and run counter to their most basic mission?  There are no corporations that would continue to pay it's brand ambassadors very healthy salaries if they were all of a sudden a pariah and therefor a detriment to the very brand they are supposed to bring value to simply through association.

By doing what it ultimately in it's own best interest the NFL would also help eliminate this awful behavior.  If this aggressive stance on negative and heinous acts leads to the league's players and owners being better people as a whole, I think it would be a net gain for society.  The desire to be a player in the NFL is tremendous and probably sits in somewhere in the back of the mind of 50% of high school football players.  If all of those players knew that to ultimately achieve their dreams, they had to be upstanding citizens of the highest order and poses the mental and physical abilities that let them compete on the field, this movement could have very very broad implications as it ripples through society.  Whether or not they want to be considered role models there are a lot of people who look up to and aspire to be those guys on the field and in the luxury boxes on Sundays and the NFL can take a few very easy and very savvy steps to drastically change the conversation.

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