"What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself." — Abraham Lincoln
There are nearly 1,700 players on the active rosters of the 32 NFL teams. Over the past few weeks, however, the majority of trending topics regarding the NFL focused on a few whose serious actions were, unfortunately, reflective of dire situations beyond football and sports.
Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald and Jonathan Dwyer have become the faces of domestic violence, Adrian Peterson the poster figure for child abuse. And Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL executives and team owners have become synonymous with waffling under fire.
From my experience, the NFL and all sports leagues and teams try to listen to their fans, the very people who support them and their marketing partners. The problem with the NFL is that they have been exposed as being reactive rather than pro-active: Why were the issues of domestic violence, child abuse, DUI, concussions, race and other situations that impact society not dealt with in a stronger way until there was an outcry from fans/consumers, marketing partners and, in the case of concussions, from former players?
Sports leagues were not established as the beacons of society. But they should reflect what society stands for and should be at the forefront in taking stands on issues rather than waiting for the masses to wake them up.
Early-season NFL TV numbers continue to be through the roof. Some advertisers already have committed to spending upward of $4 million for 30-second spots during Super Bowl XLIX on NBC this February.
But that has not stopped NFL marketing partners from being pro-active both as a matter of business and responsibility, among them Anheuser-Busch, Nike, FedEx, Verizon and PepsiCo.
“The real crisis this firestorm has brought to light goes way beyond Verizon’s image or the future of the NFL,” Lowell McAdam, CEO for Verizon Wireless, wrote on his LinkedIn page. “It’s about the scourge of domestic violence itself — a plague that crosses all sports, all communities, and all demographics."
In 1995, Verizon enacted a program called HopeLine, which connects victims and potential victims of domestic violence with funds, shelters and other resources.
"Because of our long-standing commitment to this issue, we believe we can be far more effective in preventing domestic violence by remaining in the arena with our partners at the NFL, rather than backing away from the controversy," wrote McAdam.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO for PepsiCo, said in a statement, "As a mother, a wife and a passionate football fan, I am deeply disturbed that the repugnant behavior of a few players and the NFL's acknowledged mishandling of these issues, is casting a cloud over the integrity of the league and the reputations of the majority of players who've dedicated their lives to a career they love.
"There is no middle ground," Nooyi said. "The behaviors are disgusting, absolutely unacceptable and completely fly in the face of the values we at PepsiCo believe in and cherish.”
Nooyi said she feels Goodell would "do the right thing for the league in light of the serious issues it is facing [to] effect positive change ... How they handle these cases going forward can help shape how we, as a nation, as a society and as individuals treat domestic violence and child abuse."
Among other moves, Anna Isaacson was given an expanded role from NFL Vice President of Community Affairs and Philanthropy to Vice-President of Social Responsibility; and Lisa Friel, Jane Randel and Rita Smith, experts in the field of domestic violence, were appointed by the NFL as senior advisors to "help lead and shape the NFL's policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault."
The National Organization for Women called it "a step in the right direction, but it's not enough," asking for Goodell's resignation.
Nearly lost in the maelstrom are other NFL-related stories that make fans and league partners proud.
Last month, former nine-year defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu donated a kidney to his brother, former NFL defensive lineman Chris.
Also in August, when the Cincinnati Bengals cut defensive tackle Devon Still from their roster, they placed him on the practice squad so that he could continue to earn a paycheck and receive medical benefits for his four-year-old daughter, Leah, who is battling Stage 4 neuroblastoma. Still was subsequently reactivated, and the team has been donating sales of his jersey to pediatric cancer research. Earlier this month, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton purchased 100 Still kids' jerseys and donated them to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Are other pro leagues paying attention? Most certainly. As one MLB executive, wishing to remain unnamed, said to me last week, "Baseball is not in the cross-hairs right now. But we are never too far from that situation. We are all working hard to be pro-active when it comes to the things that impact our league, players, fans and society."