When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com.  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?



5 thoughts on “When institutions fail

  1. juliathepoet

    Thank you for explaining how changes in society happen in institutions that have a management structure that is insulated from the realities of the people who support it. I have never been into football, but it has been fascinating to watch this from the perspective of a rape survivor who is active in both the survivor community and the Mormon feminist movement.

    Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, and the college students of today were raised by a cohort of men and women who taught them that feminist ideals are what make good marriages. Both our daughters and our sons expect to be treated as equals. The reaction to Ordain Women was at least as shocking to our sons. Instead of one spouse leaving the church, or going inactive, families are leaving together. The church leadership doesn’t seem to realize that the women and men in wards that are in conservative regions of the country, but where there is less social cost to leaving than there is in Utah, are having conversations that include ward and stake leadership, about whether to stay, and if they leave, where to go.

    As a ward with a “known feminist” we often get visited by Area leadership. My presence has been given as one of the reasons for these random check-ins. The irony is that most of my ward didn’t know about Mormon feminism before the visits started. I have had to break my personal commitment not to talk about Mormon feminist actions at church, because people are asking me about the difference between Ordain Women and other Mormon feminist organizations.

  2. Rob Samuelsen

    To compare physical abuse by NFL football players to Ordain Women discredits this entire article. Better comparison are cycling and doping, baseball and steroids, or Mike Tyson’s ears. Let’s keep sports talk to sports.

    That aside, no where did you talk about Hollywood or the music industry. What about Justin Bieber or Lindsay Lohan? This same type of behavior has been going on in Hollywood for decades even to the point that it’s almost expected of stars. In fact, it’s become noteworthy when an actress actually stays married, a rock star doesn’t do drugs, or a thespian is straight. Furthermore, Hollywood continues to stuff it down our throats with any myriad of themes, acts, or lyrics affecting humanity in much more devious and obvious ways than an immature football player. Hollywood has done a MUCH WORSE job of protecting the brand than the NFL.

    Also, felonious acts (independent of who commits them) such as assault and child abuse are hardly fodder for a comparison to a “civil rights” activism. A crime is a crime and that’s all that needs to be said.

    1. admin Post author

      The post isn’t about sports, though. Mike Tyson or Justin Bieber are completely and totally irrelevant. I’m not interested in Ray Rice, I’m interested in Roger Goodell. What’s interesting to me is not what Ray Rice did in that elevator (his actions were the catalyst, but anything could have been). it’s the response of the NFL to that situation. And of course, they couldn’t have handled it worse if they’d tried.
      And that’s why Ordain Women fits so well. For example; this dynamic, in which the organization says something definitive, and the next day, evidence proves them false. And so they have to issue a statement ‘clarifying’ their previous statement. And then they hide for two weeks, and don’t talk to anyone.
      So Roger Goodell says ‘nobody in the NFL saw the videotape.’ The next day, audio is released in which someone in the NFL office acknowledges receipt of the video and then says ‘you’re right, it’s terrible.’ We had exactly the same dynamic in regards to Ordain. The Church says ‘excommunications are entirely a local matter, Kate Kelly’s bishop acted on his own.’ The next day, it’s revealed that a General Authority visited that bishop and talked to him privately exactly when he was deliberating. Same situation, same response.
      I don’t have enough information to know whether or not Kate Kelly was appropriately excommunicated. I do know that it has proved to be disasterous. We’ll never know how many people left the Church as a result–the Church doesn’t release those figures. But I know over forty, and that’s just me, one guy. The number has to be in the thousands. The message the excommunicate sent was ‘you’re not valued. Your concerns are not valid. Your feelings, of being disrespected and taken for granted, are not justified.’ I doubt that’s the message that was supposed to be send, anymore than I doubt that Roger Goodell is personally uninterested in domestic violence. But by mishandling a situation, terrible messages get sent.

      1. Anonymous

        When I started reading your article, I was interested because of the huge issues facing the NFL and the potential far reaching ramifications to other organizations. When I saw that the article was nothing more than a lead in to different and what I perceived to be a narrow, unrelated topic, I was disappointed. In the NFL, the ramifications go way beyond the NFL or even sports. The more interesting issues related to the NFL scandal are:
        1) How much control should an employer have over an off duty employee? The potential ramifications are huge.
        2) As you stated, the handling of sports scandals has been atrocious. NFL is only the latest. MLB was drug abuse scandal was worse. What about Lance Armstrong, Ron Artest, Mike Tyson? Clippers? Lots of examples of terrible handling. So, what is the best way for an organization to handle a scandal?
        3) The NFL, as a tax exempt association, could jeopardize tax treatment for many other tax exempt organizations (including golf and hockey). This could be huge!
        4) Is there an opportunity for redemption or forgiveness? If so, how? It appears to have been a positive change for Michael Vick. How is the implemented and measured?
        5) Is it right to let money dictate one’s behavior? Is it okay to have off duty miscreant behavior as long as your customers or sponsors don’t complaint? Is that the catalyst for action?
        6) Can an employer take action against an employee (or off duty employee) without following due process? Are employees guilty until proven innocent? In today’s “right to work” system, is it right to fire employees on the presumption of guilt? What happens if the employee is later proven innocent?

        To me, these are much bigger issues and a good organization needs to come to grips with each of these issues. Enough said…


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