The Punch and the Roll Back

Published: September 10, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Two football stories made the news yesterday, but the focus on one all but buried the other. Let’s begin with the obvious.

By now, most people have seen the video circulated by celebrity news web site TMZ that shows what happened inside the elevator between Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice and then-fiancé-now wife Janay. Frankly, after watching it, Rice is lucky his wife wasn’t killed in the incident which would have landed him in prison. Why any woman would continue to remain with a man who acts like this is beyond my understanding, but that’s between the two of them and none of our business.

What is our business is the proliferation of sports stars, particularly football players, who continue to be caught in criminal activity. According to a report in Britain’s Daily Mail(dated June 28, 2013), “An investigation into crime within the NFL has revealed that 27 top-flight players have been arrested since the Super Bowl – including two on suspicion of murder.” Among them: New England’s Aaron Hernandez charged with murder of Odin Lloyd, Cleveland Browns’ Ausar Walcott was charged with attempted murder; others include Adam Jones, Jason Peters and Rolando McClain.

But let’s stick to the Rice issue for now, and the good news that has come out of it: 1) The Baltimore Ravens, has terminated Rice’s contract, effective immediately; and 2) Despite the initial light sentence of a two-game suspension, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted to an error in his assessment and has now suspended Rice indefinitely from the NFL.

Since the TMZ footage surfaced, questions have arisen as to what the NFL and the commissioner knew and when they knew it. In an interview (Sept. 9), Goodell tells CBS News‘ Norah O’Donnell that neither he nor his office knew of the elevator tape until TMZ released it to the media.

However, this hasn’t stopped many for calling for Goodell to step down. In a report from the New York Times (Sept. 9), S. Adam Brasel, a professor of marketing at Boston College said, “What makes the N.F.L. look especially bad in this case is the sense that the only reason they suspended Ray Rice indefinitely was to save face, rather than to actually address or punish the problem at hand. Do people think the N.F.L. would have done the same if they got the footage internally rather than having the whole world see it on TMZ?”

It’s a good point. However, before the TMZ video surfaced Goodell stepped forward on August 28 to admit that he hadmishandled the Rice case and announced tougher sanctions for players caught in future abuse cases. In a letter to team owners, the commissioner said, “I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

While I agree with many critics that much needs to change about the culture of football and Goodell presides over the NFL, this is not just a challenge for the commissioner. It’s a challenge for every owner, manager and executive in the NFL community. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: organizations like the NFL need to get ahead of the curve by not only implementing tougher sanctions but instituting organization-wide, on-going ethics training for all players, coaches, and executives.

In the end, ethics is not about what we say or even what we intend. It’s about what we do, and if we want to change the culture inside any organization, all participants need to foster a culture where respect, responsibility, honesty and integrity take place off the field as well as on.

Now, in the midst of all the fuss and fury over Rice, the N.C.A.A. announced that it was restoring “…Penn State’s postseason eligibility, removing one of the final hurdles in its football team’s path back to normalcy in the aftermath of the child sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the university nearly three years ago.”

“The move,” the Times writes (Sept. 9), “marks a reversal from two years ago, when the N.C.A.A. took the unprecedented — and controversial — step of swiftly barring Penn State’s football team from postseason play for four seasons, slashing its scholarship count and directing $60 million to be put into a national fund for sexual-abuse survivors.

“… on Monday, the N.C.A.A. voted to roll back the punishments on the recommendations of former Senator George J. Mitchell, who was hired to monitor Penn State in the aftermath of the case. Mitchell concluded that Penn State had made progress — and that its football players, uninvolved in the abuse case, ‘bear no personal responsibility’ for what transpired in the past.”

While I applaud the growth that Penn State has achieved, I was disappointed to learn that the N.C.A.A. is withdrawing its challenge “to redirect the N.C.A.A.’s $60 million fine from a national endowment for sexual-abuse survivors into a Pennsylvania endowment.”

And there’s more controversy. “When the N.C.A.A. contemplated sanctions,” the Times says, “it relied on information in a report by the former F.B.I. director Louis J. Freeh. The report, which was commissioned by Penn State’s trustees, found fault with how university leaders, as well as Paterno, handled the Sandusky case.

“But members of the Paterno family, including Jay Paterno, a former assistant to his father, have dismissed the Freeh report as being flawed and criticized the N.C.A.A. for using the report in its investigation. The Paterno family has sued the N.C.A.A. over its handling of the case and the penalties it issued.

“The penalties, Jay Paterno said, were ‘forced down Penn State’s throat, against Penn State’s own set of bylaws.’ ”

Nonetheless, progress at Penn State has been made. I can only hope that any lingering issues related to Coach Paterno will be resolved in a fair and responsible manner. It’s important to remember that while Paterno knew of the scandal and chose not to notify the police as he admitted, as a decades-long coach and teacher, he contributed mightily to many student-athletes who went on to have successful lives as a result of his work.



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