Returning to Pete

Today is the 46th anniversary of the NFL’s appointment of Alvin Ray “Pete” Rozelle as their commissioner. Overcoming initial trepidation from his crusty, change-adverse bosses, Rozelle went on to launch the NFL into the behemoth brand it is today. He also changed what exactly it meant to be a sports executive, and his lessons are badly needed by leagues today.

I’m not saying that the press is wrong to report any internal differences we have, but at the same time, I think it’s our job to keep them from becoming public issues, for anything that detracts from the purely athletic aspects of the sport is bad for us.
 -Pete Rozelle

Rozelle would have been a genius on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, perhaps in a fit of creativity, Snapchat. Rozelle’s prose while a student had been purple, but over the years he developed a succinctness that carried over into his interviews and internal memos. 140 characters would have been more than enough for Rozelle. He was an executive who had innate understanding of his customers. It’s easy to imagine the press conference wizard Rozelle taking to Twitter to diffuse a crisis with a deft quip, following up a statement with decisive action. Rozelle was great at executing decisions speedily, changing the story from the story itself to how excellently he and the NFL had handled it. Rozelle was good at using this skill to slowly trnsform himself into the NFL’s lead actor for 30 years. Rozelle probably buried his fair share of stories, and that’s not a good thing. But it’s the exact opposite tact than the current NFL employs.

I have no idea if Roger Goodell was a good lawyer, but I have to assume he was at least competent one. I have to assume he was, because the NFL, despite being an entity with a large amount of nepotism, was spot on with the appointments of Rozelle and then Paul Tagliabue. I also think that the total vilification of Goodell is sometimes hysterical, but it is a fact that he is a public relations disaster. Whereas Rozelle was the master of the finesse move, Goodell seems intent on pile driving stories into oblivion. If Goodell was a gardener, he’d use a bulldozer to plant a flower, throwing up piles of dirt and rubble when a few shovel scoops would’ve done nicely. Rozelle was able to slowly develop himself into an exceptional villain, while Goodell has stumbled into being the biggest villain in American sports. How this has been allowed to continually happen, without any real intervention, is beyond comprehension. He’s proven to have little understanding, in his interactions with the media, to have little to no understanding or rapport with his customers. Sure, the NFL is more popular than ever, but NFL bashing is more popular than ever. Goodell bashing is a continuous narrative throughout the year. It’s rot, and assuming that the NFL is too invincible to pay attention to it is hubris.

So what could the NFL do starting today, the 56th anniversary of the most important decision it ever made as an organization? Firing Goodell would be a start, but doing so suddenly, dramatically and without a plan of succession would be construed as desperate. If I were the NFL, I’d start sourcing candidates in the weeks following Super Bowl 50, with the plan that succession would happen prior to the 2016 or the 2017 draft. Using the draft as the next commissioner’s first public event is ideal because it is a glitzy but manageable party, and an easy way to start building solid rapport with the players.

The second task is to repair relations with the NFLPA. The essence of this relationship is rooted in friction, but mutual disgust does neither side any good. Taking measured steps towards reconciliation would go a long way.

The third obvious step is appointing a visible and adept rules committee czar. The rules are so byzantine, so open to strange interpretation at this point, that it’s hurting product. Having someone who could go on TV (or Reddit AMA) to explain changes and the rationale behind them would restore fan confidence, and create PR win the NFL could mine. Rozelle would have teed off on that chance.

What happens after those three changes would be anyone’s guess. The violence of the game may prove too endemic to overcome, and a gradual talent drain as more athletes flock to less dangerous sports might mean football’s life is more finite than we want to imagine. But these are existential problems the NFL has years to comprehend and solve. There’s no excuse for being undone by problems with ready solutions.

So happy anniversary Pete, and congratulations on getting your team back in Los Angeles. I hope where ever you are you’re celebrating, and I hope the league figures out how to follow your example once more.

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