Lessons for Nonprofits from Roger Goodell, the NFL, and the Ravens

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September 10, 2014;Corporate Counsel


The incident involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-girlfriend senseless in an Atlantic City casino elevator has led to Rice’s being sacked by the Baltimore Ravens, indefinitely suspended by the NFL, and assigned to a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders. The NFL, for its part, is following in the steps of Penn State with an investigation by the former director of the FBI (Robert Mueller in the NFL’s case, compared to Louis Freeh for Penn State) of its handling of the Rice incident—specifically about how much the NFL brass knew about what Rice had done to his fiancée before the NFL handed down all of a two-game suspension for the man.

Even before Mueller delivers his report, the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice affair is replete with human resource and communications lessons for other organizations, including nonprofits.

  1. Don’t fall in love with your employees: Although Rice told Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and team general manager Ozzie Newsome “the truth” about his knocking out his fiancée, because of their association with their all-star halfback, they chose to put it in the most positive possible light. They imagined that Rice hit her with an open hand rather than two punches to the head with closed fists. They imagined that she was knocked out because her head was near the wall of the elevator rather than her having been knocked across the elevator by Rice. They concluded that both were very drunk and possibly, sort of, both somehow responsible. They wanted to imagine the best about Rice in an obviously awful situation because he was their guy. They liked him—they loved him. Bisciotti and Newsome demonstrate that you can’t lose your objectivity and drop your necessary due diligence toward your employees.
  2. Don’t put off making the right decision: “What the league mishandled was waiting until the video surfaced to fire Rice,” write Ryan McConnell and Michelle Jee for Corporate Counsel. “Once an allegation of wrongdoing surfaced that was substantiated and impacted the business, the league should have disciplined him.” Rice admitted to the violence and was arrested back in February. The decision of the NFL to wait until the video’s release simply delayed action that both the NFL and the Ravens needed to take. Moreover, any extra-organizational legal process—for example, the decisions of the New Jersey prosecutors regarding Rice’s pummeling of his fiancée—did not and should not have prevented the League from enacting its own severe discipline on the admitted woman-basher. It’s not “double jeopardy,” as Rice’s fans have suggested. The League, like any nonprofit, has to do what is right for itself vis-à-vis its own standards of conduct and public reputation, regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen to a domestic violence miscreant in the courts.
  3. Doing the right thing is more important than money: Explaining the NFL’s delayed decision is really difficult. Commissioner of the 501(c)(6) NFL, Roger Goodell seems to have done his best to avoid taking significant action against Rice because of an impression that having a domestic abuser play wouldn’t significantly impact NFL revenues. Goodell’s decision to minimize penalizing Rice until the public outcry became overwhelming, according to the two Corporate Counsel authors, “says that Goodell does not think beating up a woman will impact ticket sales or financial performance, so the league should allow Rice to suit up for the Ravens.” Neither the fact that prosecutors in New Jersey allowed Rice to go to pretrial intervention nor that Janay Palmer subsequently married Rice excuse the fact that Rice was, by his own admission, the protagonist in a horrific act of domestic violence—which was a crime not only against his fiancée, but against women in general. There are other players who have been charged with domestic abuse, including defensive players for the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers who were on the field the weekend prior, though the Panthers’ Greg Hardy was placed on the inactive list this week as a result of the Ray Rice outcry. The NFL’s calculus here is suspect across the board.

  4. Violating organizational rules requires organizational action: In the press, some have floated concerns about Rice’s due diligence in the legal system as superseding whatever actions the NFL or the Ravens might have taken. That totally misses the point. Assume that someplace in the NFL rules there are standards for behavior on the part of its players, coaches, and NFL executives too. Even though the prosecutors may have let Rice essentially walk, the NFL has its own rules to manage the conduct of its personnel. Rice admitted the domestic violence, video or no video, and regardless of the legal process, if the NFL had standards that include violence against women as behaviors that will not be tolerated, the NFL could and should have acted. “To manage reputational risk, organizations—like the NFL or your company—set forth clear rules on what is required for employees, telling them what doing a good job looks like,” write McConnell and Jee. “If an employee is found to have broken the law and the violation impacts the business, the employee may need to find a new position.”
  5. Don’t wait to explain: With a paycheck last year that amounted to over $44 million, Goodell shouldn’t have to be ducking the press as it searches for evidence that he and others in the NFL c-suite had access to the full video of Rice belting his fiancée—which, he explains, had he seen, he would have imposed harsher penalties. For the past week, dribs and drabs of information have been seeping out of the NFL with Goodell looking worse and worse. Again, even though he ought to have taken appropriate action without the need to see the video, Goodell is now appearing to be somewhere between incompetent, in that there might have been a video there that he did or didn’t see, or dishonest, that he either lied about seeing it or knowingly chose not to look at it. Even worse, Goodell claimed that he and the NFL were not able to obtain the video—but TMZ was? Law enforcement sources say that the NFL had the video as of April. Assume that Goodell has screwed up—royally. He needs to come clean completely before the Mueller investigation, else he and the NFL will look even worse.
  6. Be thoughtful, consistent, and comprehensive about personnel behavior standards and penalties: Meting out punishment to one potential malefactor and not others, or at least not consistently to others, makes an organization look hypocritical or worse. In the case of the NFL’s treatment of players and others who have been charged with hitting women or engaging in other kinds of sexual abuse, the penalties imposed on Ray Rice raise the question of why others haven’t been disciplined. As noted, ’49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald has been arrested on sexual assault charges Greg Hardy, a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers, is waiting for his trial on assault charges. Even Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback who faced off against the Ravens last week, was punished with a brief suspension for having assaulted a woman in a nightclub bathroom, though he escaped worse sanctions by complying with an NFL mandate that he seek “professional behavior evaluation.” Owners have had their share of sexual assault controversies, too; the most recent was Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones—in his case, replete with photos. Writing for Forbes, Roger Groves asks why the NFL personnel policies regarding domestic violence, being updated by the NFL on the fly as Goodell fends off criticism for the League’s handing of Rice, apply to players, but not to NFL executives or owners. Former FBI director Mueller is investigating if and when Goodell and his peers knew about the Rice video, but he should expand his review to include the unwarranted variations in the NFL’s treatment of players, executives, and owners on the issue of sexual assault—and how stupidly the NFL has, until the Ray Rice outcry, punished players for smoking a joint much more harshly than for beating the crap out of women, including girlfriends and spouses.

There is much to criticize in the “RiceGate” scandal as handled by Goodell and Bisciotti, but the multiple errors of the Ravens and the NFL also comprise a body of important lessons for nonprofits.—Rick Cohen