“If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”
– James Harrison (July 13, 2011)
The most improbable NFL season in history is over. Tim Tebow transcended the sport, attracting new fans to the game. Drew Brees rewrote history books. And the Super Bowl rematch of the Patriots and Giants was an exhilarating show as good as anything at the local cineplex. It’s easy to forget how close the NFL came to losing it all last year when players and owners were deadlocked in a bitter labor dispute and a last-minute deal saved the season. While these storylines dominated the public’s attention, a quiet war was being waged the last few months: the public relations fight over who gets credit for saving the season.
In football, the story usually ends when the clock runs out. But in business and politics, the narrative never ends with the deal or an election. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFLPA have a responsibility to their constituencies, and that means the second they finished a deal, they started planning for the next contract. But it was Goodell – a lightning rod for criticism who has alienated players and fans alike with his authoritarian approach – who was better prepared. He recognized that the sport needed strong reputation management, launching a strategic, sustained public campaign to show fans who was really on their side during the lockout.
Looking back over the course of the season, a few key points of comparison in the communications of the Commissioner’s office versus the NFLPA:
- Goodell flew under the radar: He wisely picked his battles and avoided controversy, particularly with disciplinary matters. Maybe players were just on their best behavior, but the volume of public discord over player suspensions and fines was far lower than in past years. In past years, Pacman Jones, Albert Haynesworth and James Harrison dominated headlines. This year, the suspension of Ndamukong Suh was the only such blip. But Goodell acted with restraint, allowing Suh’s disgustingly unnecessary behavior to take center stage and drown out anti-Goodell rhetoric by players and the union.
- The fight for ownership of the player safety issue: The need to better protect players reached a tipping point this year when former players filed lawsuits against the NFL. But no one from the union stepped up to own the issue. Meanwhile, Goodell spoke at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons annual meeting, spearheaded a $100 million investment in medical research, placed an ad on player safety during the Super Bowl, and continued his tough talk on overly-aggressive hits on defenseless players. He may not have solved the problem yet, but he took control of the debate as the premier advocate.
- The union self-destructed: When Giants players callously targeted a 49ers player specifically because of his history of concussions, the silence from the union was deafening. By comparison, Goodell looks like an angel.
- The Washington factor: The NFL’s lobbying of the Congressional “GOP Doc Caucus” on HGH testing demonstrated the league’s public commitment, while making the NFLPA look intransigent and uncaring. The union’s proposal was ludicrous – offering zero in-season testing and allowing players to opt-out. Needless to say, Congress wasn’t impressed by the NFLPA.
But where Goodell really won the battle was with direct engagement with fans. He’ll never please everyone (or anyone in Pittsburgh), but he’s made a lot of moves that help the league and owners while also enhancing fan loyalty:
- Participating in fan forums: His in-season fan forums added a degree of transparency and inclusiveness to a multi-billion industry. He started his career on the NFL’s lowest rung as an intern for the New York Jets in 1983 – which he used to position himself as a man of the people. Fans feeling the financial pinch of rising ticket prices found a way to relate to a guy who previously seemed more like a school principal than anything.
- Opening national broadcast to all: National games showcase the best in the sport, meaning that millions of fans never get to see their teams play under the lights. Guaranteeing all teams get the national spotlight is a great gift to fans.
- Proposing a mercy killing of the Pro Bowl: It’s risky to fly in the face of more than 70 years of tradition, but his candid admission that the game is a failure rings true with fans, who can now dream of all the fun alternatives that could be developed.
Last offseason, the season was on the brink and there was no one more certain to shoulder the blame than Goodell. But this offseason, he’s laughing all the way to the bank with a five-year extension that keeps him in office until 2019. If he needs something to do with his break, maybe he could go work in the communications office of the NBA.