A guest blog with John Baldoni, chair of the leadership development practice of N2growth. Originally published at Forbes.com.
The NFL is sitting pretty.
You bet! After a series of widely publicized domestic assault cases, repeatedly botched attempts to impose discipline, and the performance of a commissioner who has been AWOL for most of the recent crisis, the fans keep flocking to the gates and even more fans are watching on Sunday (as well as Thursday and Monday).
The NFL is a business but it is a business like few others. First off, it is exempt from anti-trust code and its individual franchises play in taxpayer-supported stadiums. It is also very lucrative. The NFL itself rakes in $10 billion a year, over a billion coming from sponsorship dollars. It is a pseudo public institution that as an institution is tax-exempt. The teams pay taxes on their revenues, not the league itself.
While a few high profile sponsors – Anheuser-Busch, McDonald’s and Visa – expressed concern about the way the NFL has managed the abuse cases, no company has disassociated itself with the league.
Trust in the NFL has eroded, says Barbara Kimmel, executive director of Trust Across America-Trust Across the World, “primarily because many view the players as role models. In other words, they set an example for lots of people, including young fans. The NFL is caught up in a crisis based on a small number of bad apples.”
While fans do of course express outrage at players who transgress by beating up women and children, their discontent is merely vocal. Their feet stay firmly planted in the stands or propped up on footstools as they watch the game at home on TV. And maybe that’s okay. Say you needed a prescription medicine and the company producing that drug had broken laws (as have some major pharmaceutical companies) you would still take the drug if ordered to by your doctor.
Fans do want sponsors to do what they are not willing to do themselves: give up the NFL. Over half of those surveyed by Reuters/Ipsos said sponsors should drop their support of the league. Not surprisingly more women (58%) than men (49%) believe that sponsors need “in some way” to stop supporting the NFL. At the same time nearly 80% said they would continue watching the games. Jason Maloni, an executive with the strategic communications firm Levick, told Reuters,” It should not be lost on anybody that America is of two minds when it comes to football in the last month. They are voting with their hearts.”
We humans are good at compartmentalizing issues. We can choose to look at issues the way we want to. For example, I can root for my team because I always have. And if one or two miscreants misbehave, well, most of the players are okay guys. And they are. Professional athletes are not exempt from breaking the law though it can seem they receive preferential treatment. [Case in point. Ray Rice who was allowed due to his celebrity to avoid jail time and consequently avoided jail time even after cold-cocking his significant other.]
This does not mean that fans have any trust in the league. As Kimmel writes in a recent blog, “trust is taken for granted. It is assumed that it just ‘exists’ when, in reality, it rarely does. Some leaders might argue, ‘Why bother? Maybe we’ll get lucky and never face a crisis.’ [Yet] it’s much less expensive to build a foundation of trust, than it is to ‘manage’ a crisis and attempt to build trust after the crisis. Building a foundation of trust also brings tangible and intangible benefits.”
Trust is the currency organizations need to survive not simply for its public image but for its own health. As Kimmel points out there are real-world advantages to trust. These include “greater personal effectiveness, increased employee responsibility, improved collaboration (and) decision-making speed, and improved morale.”
As for the NFL we have seen what happens when a lack of trust prevails. Perhaps now is the league’s opportunity to show us what good can occur when trust returns.
To learn more about leadership from John Baldoni, enroll in his course Do-It-Yourself Leadership.