By Rockne Roll • Multimedia Journalist • 

Protecting the Shield – from itself

Recent issues perhaps a precursor to shift in NFL's popularity

Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is in a variety of different kinds of hot water, some of which have a higher profile than others. There’s the obvious issue which floats over his office at the moment, the public backlash at his office’s handling of Ray Rice’s assault on his wife in an Atlantic City elevator. The incident was bad enough, even before we learned the full truth of what happened, but the league’s reaction was particularly unbearable for the public.

The short initial suspension was a bad enough PR blunder, but the revelation of the “second tape,” along with Goodell’s later disputed assertion that the league hadn’t seen the second tape and the question of how the NFL, which claimed to be investigating the incident, couldn’t find the second tape, all worked together to transform the issue. Goodell and the league not only have a serious issue with how the league treats women; they now have a credibility issue.

This isn’t the league’s only problem regarding its treatment of women who fall under its umbrella. Five NFL clubs and the league itself are defendants in lawsuits brought by former cheerleaders regarding the substandard wages and working conditions that NFL cheerleaders are subjected to. NPR reported earlier this week that the cheerleaders were subjected to sub-standard and unsafe working conditions and were paid less than $5 an hour, paid in a single check after the season.

“It is a problem that is league wide,” Clinton Woods, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, told NPR. “This is a pattern and practice of the NFL and its member clubs to take advantage of female athletes.”

The NFL has already been accused of taking advantage of male athletes, considering the ongoing litigation between the league and a group of former players who are suing over the league’s handling of the head injuries they suffered during their playing careers. The league reached a settlement of $765 million with the players, but that settlement is being disputed because a significant number of those players, as many as 15,000, would receive no compensation under the terms of the settlement.

This is on top of Adrian Petersen’s widely reported beating of his child and the controversy over the mascot of Washington’s franchise and owner Dan Snyder’s refusal to consider changing it.

These problems aren’t a big deal for the NFL. Yet.

Because at the moment, the NFL still makes an unbelievable amount of money. Ten of the world’s 20 most valuable sports clubs are members of the NFL. Net revenue for the league is estimated to approach $10 billion this year, and the league has publically announced a goal of turning $25 billion a year by 2027.  Even with the money cauldron churning, trouble looms on the horizon.

The NFL wants to attract more female fans, a strategy exemplified by the league’s marketing partnership with lingerie giant Victorias Secret, and the league’s handling of these scandals are sure to give women (and many men) second thoughts before contributing to the NFL’s coffers. Plus, even as the NFL continues to grow in popularity, fewer and fewer young people are playing football, which leads not only to fewer potential NFL Players, but fewer NFL fans down the road. 

Goodell is employed by the owners of the NFL’s teams to run the league in such a way so that it is profitable for the owners, and Goodell has thus far been wildly successful in that regard. But the league’s current PR tactics are somewhat short-sighted, meant to protect the league from immediate harm, or as Goodell is fond of saying, “protecting the shield.” A longer view of the NFL’s ongoing issues may be necessary in order to ensure the ongoing viability of the league, and of football itself. 

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