Can The NFL Learn?

We’ve now reached the second month of the National Football League’s 2015-16 season in the United States. Are you curious about how Commissioner Roger Goodell’s embarrassingly flawed (and eventually overturned) suspension of superstar quarterback Tom Brady is affecting the popularity of the sport?

Surprisingly, not at all. The NFL’s television ratings remain at an all-time peak, and three different teams are clamoring for the opportunity to enter Los Angeles, the second largest city and business market in the United States.

But it would be a mistake to simply conclude that Goodell’s botched investigation and disciplinary action left no scars. The Commissioner continues to be excoriated for his mismanaged investigation of an on-field controversy that affected the outcome of a playoff game.

Interestingly, although all professional leagues face similar challenges, other sports have adopted far different operational strategies to address them. Last week, for instance, Major League Baseball investigated a controversially violent slide by a Los Angeles Dodger that badly injured an infielder of the New York Mets and led to a victory by the aggressor’s team.

MLB investigated the slide after the conclusion of the game and suspended the Dodger player. The Mets went on to win the series, and the brief controversy ended with no lingering criticism of the review process.

This outcome is particularly striking because, during the game, the baseball umpires initially determined that the Dodger had done nothing wrong. Thus, the MLB felt compelled to overturn the determination of its own on-field umpires. The NFL, in comparison, simply upheld the initial ruling of its on-field referees during the Brady investigation.

So how did MLB resolve its on-field controversy so quickly and so effectively? In comparison to the NFL, which permitted its own Brady investigation to linger for months and then to be overturned on an appeal in federal court?

The answers to these questions may reside in the individual who led the baseball investigation and announced its findings. Joe Torre, the Hall of Famer whose on-field career included eighteen years as an all-star player and an astounding thirty years as a championship manager, serves as MLB’s full time Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations.

In other words, MLB utilizes one of its most respected and experienced on-field veterans to handle investigations of player controversies. It relies on that veteran to function as the public face of the sport when it determines and then announces the punishments of active players.

The NFL, on the other hand, asks its Commissioner to perform those tasks. Its Commissioner, Roger Goodell, is a life-long businessman who has never worn a sports uniform as a player, as a manager, or as a coach at the professional or college level.

To be fair, a dearth of on-field experience certainly doesn’t disqualify one from exercising sound judgment during punitive deliberations. But it does tend to embolden and enable critics who will inevitably leap to excoriate one’s punitive decisions.

So can the NFL learn to operate more effectively by adopting the organizational structure of MLB? If the employment of an experienced sportsman can help preserve MLB’s credibility when it overturns the decisions of its own on-field umpires, it might likewise enhance the trust that the public places in the NFL when it undertakes similar deliberations.