This is the NFL’s Nixon moment. In the words of Sen. Howard Baker, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Did NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell watch the elevator video of Ray Rice smashing his fiancée’s face with a right hook before he issued a measly two-game suspension? Who is the person on the other end of the audiotape confirming receipt of the video at NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters? Is there a cover-up inside the NFL?
Fans, sponsors, elected officials and the media are all waiting for answers to these questions, but women may be paying the most attention. As the rising economic engine of the league, women – along with corporate sponsors who appeal to them – are the NFL’s most important audience right now.
They choose whether to buy game tickets and sports apparel for themselves and their family members, to join fantasy football teams, or to enroll their sons in youth leagues. Whether women continue to support the NFL will depend on how it handles this crisis. It will come down to trust, an area in which the NFL has an uninspiring track record.
Take a look at how the league handled its long history with concussions and brain injuries. For years, the NFL denied the link between football and brain damage. Goodell began to right that ship a few years ago with reforms and initiatives, even donating $30 million to the foundation for the National Institutes of Health, earmarked primarily for brain research. But the commissioner has stopped short of publicly admitting that football is inherently dangerous to the brain, despite it being one of the most obvious connections in sports.
And then there are the statements reported last week in the lawsuit by thousands of former players who sued the NFL, alleging that the league hid the dangers of concussions. The brain injury lawsuit, like the domestic violence investigation, focuses on what the league knew about concussions and when.
So what is the NFL saying in the lawsuit? It’s not clear. On the one hand, the NFL issued its strongest admission yet that professional football players sustain severe brain injuries at far higher rates than the general population and that playing football increases the risk of developing neurological conditions such as dementia and depression.
On the other hand, what could have been a historic statement is buried in an actuarial report few would ever see, even if they could understand it. Even worse, far from using his bully pulpit and vast media resources to educate the public about the findings and safety risks, Goodell went silent. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello referred questions to an outside lawyer who said the study overestimated the number of players who will suffer.
How do we trust what the NFL says about domestic violence given its history with brain injuries?
Despite the commissioner’s indefinite suspension for Rice, his commitment to “do better” and this week’s announcement that he hired four women to help shape the NFL’s domestic violence policies, you’re still left wondering whether this is more than window dressing.
The NFL needs to overcome a long history of hiding the ball and earn back trust through bold and honest dealing. I’d start by adding diversity and objectivity to the white male club “independently investigating” the Rice incident. It could benefit from the addition of some expert women or African Americans, since the issues they are investigating are multifaceted male-female issues in a sport dominated by black players.
Hopefully the four women will be permitted to play a role in the investigation, but what about bringing in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, California Attorney General Kamala Harris or Nancy McFadden, Gov. Jerry Brown’s de facto chief of staff and a former U.S. associate attorney general who oversaw passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act?
Several years ago, I met with Goodell and senior NFL officials multiple times to discuss possible ways Maria Shriver and her team could work with the NFL on women’s issues. Not once did the NFL bring a woman to the table, which seemed a lot like discussing civil rights issues in the 1960s with only white men from the South.
If the commissioner didn’t see the Rice video – and let’s take him at his word – then the NFL can get beyond its Nixon moment. This powerful institution will have an opportunity to clean the secrets out, speak the truth and bring women permanently into the front office to help steer a sport that is obviously riding on the backs of their economic power.