You know the NFL seriously bungled Deflategate when experts start comparing it to the Bay of Pigs.
On Thursday morning, Judge Richard M. Berman nullified Tom Brady's suspension for conspiring to tamper with footballs. The NFL announced it will appeal the ruling, though Brady will be free to play in the interim. It was more than a stunning legal defeat for the NFL. It was an emphatic indictment of the way Goodell governs the NFL.
And yet, business management experts say it isn't too late—or even too hard—for Goodell and the NFL to change their ways before the next catastrophe.
"Goodell climbed up a tree, and he doesn't know how to get down," said Dr. Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School of Business, an expert in corporate negotiations and the psychology of management.
It doesn't take an expert to see that Goodell painted himself into a corner in Deflategate. But Schweitzer and others have studied the underlying causes of the NFL's problem, which are common to CEOs in all industries. They can also recommend real solutions.
Powerful People Care Less
In isolation, Deflategate was a comically inept mishandling of a minor yet delicate situation. But stacked atop the Saints bounty scandal of 2012 and last year's domestic violence crisis, Deflategate is a final nail in Goodell's credibility. There is something systematically wrong with a decision process that causes the NFL to react, then overreact, then overcorrect, then try to rule unilaterally, then ultimately fail to reach a satisfactory solution, over and over again, no matter what incident or infraction started the process.
That's where the Kennedy administration and the Bay of Pigs comes in, in Schweitzer's opinion. The botched 1961 invasion of Cuba provides a valuable moral about how powerful people can make terrible decisions.
For you non-history buffs: President John F. Kennedy approved an invasion of Cuba in April 1961, early in Fidel Castro's rise to power. The invasion failed, and later military debriefings revealed it was doomed from the start: poor organization, poor involvement from sympathizers in Cuba, no contingency plans. Despite serious concerns from the start, the Bay of Pigs occurred because the president thought it would work and no one wanted to disagree with him.
"There was no dissent," Schweitzer explained. "People were afraid to raise their voices."
Schweitzer is the co-author of Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both. The title alone suggests the book would make ideal bedtime reading for Goodell.
Schweitzer is also an avid football fan who has watched Deflategate closely for months and believes Goodell has fallen victim to a two-part problem common to powerful people:
- First, in Schweitzer's words: "When we are powerful, we care less about other people, in part because we can."
- Second: "People in power implicitly or explicitly cause others to go along with their thinking."
That sounds like our Goodell and his NFL cabinet. It also sounds like many awful bosses we all have encountered, plus the occasional historic dictator or tyrant.
It also applied to Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs. That military blunder led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Luckily for planet Earth, Kennedy chose to not repeat his mistakes—not by making different decisions, but by changing the way decisions were made.
Kennedy did not initially offer his opinions when the Soviet Union began arming Cuba with nuclear missiles. He asked for options instead. Then, "He purposefully wasn't at some of the meetings where people were developing ideas and alternatives," according to Schweitzer. Subordinates were free to speak their minds and explore options, and the blockade-and-negotiation strategy the administration developed prevented what could easily have become a nuclear war.
Goodell could use some of that situation-diffusion capability. His decision-making has become insular and arbitrary. The NFL always appears shocked and unprepared when players like Brady or Jonathan Vilma mount serious challenges to league authority, or when the public expresses outrage over lenient domestic violence policies or an overzealous attack on a star player. It's a problem with what Schweitzer calls "perspective taking" that is common among top executives.
So the NFL commissioner needs a devil's advocate: Not just someone with the courage to tell him what he doesn't want to hear, but someone whose stated job description is to do it.
"It must be systemic," advises Schweitzer. Otherwise, the devil's advocate becomes shunned and ostracized by all the yea-sayers. And Goodell must recuse himself from complex situations early in the decision process so subordinates don't automatically veer in the direction their boss has made it clear he was already leaning.
The Reactive Approach
There is more to it than that. Goodell's recent failures all stem from a failure to send a clear message to players, fans and owners about what's truly important to the NFL. Goodell entered office with a plan to emphasize character, but his punishments have been all over the highway and rarely fall within the same zip code as our perception of the crime.
"They have continually taken a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach," said Dr. Adam Galinsky of Columbia University. "They provide punishment that seems to be disproportionate to the way that they have expressed their philosophy up to that point."
Galinsky is Schweitzer's co-author on Friend & Foe, another expert in management principles and negotiation tactics—and another rabid football fan.
Galinsky feels the league sends garbled messages about the severity of the infractions it is trying to regulate. The NFL sells on-field violence and revels in tough-guy talk, then throws the book at the whole Saints organization when some coaching rhetoric goes too far. It stresses player character, then ignores graphic evidence and goes easy on a violent offender. It gives quarterbacks the leeway to inflate footballs within a certain range, then turns a minor change in air pressure, quite literally, into a federal case.
"The NFL has never done a good job of talking about why this was a big issue, why it mattered and what they are going to do to prevent problems in the future," Galinsky said.
Galinsky spoke before he had the chance to read Judge Berman's ruling, yet his words are echoed in the judge's decision. Judge Berman determined the NFL gave Brady "no notice of discipline" regarding the severity of his possible punishment. The judge rejected the NFL's assertion, buried at the end of the league's formal response to Brady's appeal, that altering footballs is comparable to the use of performance-enhancing drugs to gain an advantage, stating that the league's drug policies "cannot reasonably be used as a comparator."
In other words, Goodell opted for a guns-blazing approach, with huge stakes and a massive investigation, when he should have been communicating the parameters of the situation to all parties: Brady, the union, the other owners, the public.
Being clearer from the outset—saying, "The NFL will treat this as a game-integrity issue on par with performance-enhancing drugs, and Brady should be prepared to respond in that light," instead of dumping weighty Ted Wells reports on the market for public dissection—would not only have been a better PR move, it would be more in line with his duties under the collective bargaining agreement. Instead, his suspension justification looked like an afterthought or rationalization (which it may have been), and Judge Berman shot it down as such.
Goodell must clarify his message as a first step toward reestablishing credibility.
"He should come out with some type of value statement and philosophy when there isn't a crisis," Galinsky said. Goodell can wait for a quiet moment in the news cycle, then take to the airwaves to acknowledge his mistakes and reinforce the guiding principles he plans to use in future decisions. Goodell did something like that after the domestic violence saga, but the time has come for a more universal mission statement that doesn't come in direct response to the latest fiasco.
A strong mission statement, plus some reorganization to allow fresh perspectives into league headquarters, can help rebuild Goodell's relationship with the NFL Players Association. "Even if the players union didn't agree completely, they would still respect the fact that he's telling them the playing field that they are on," Galinsky said.
There's more to labor relations than that, but a clear statement of purpose eliminates uncertainty, and trust is a powerful tool at the bargaining table. "People are willing to make deep concessions to people they like and trust," Schweitzer said.
Anyone who remembers Paul Tagliabue's civil relationship with the NFLPA can sigh here. When NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith says, "we never make the mistake of trusting the league," it's evidence of a relationship so toxic that one side might ignore its own self-interest just to damage the other, a phenomenon Schweitzer has researched in labor relations: "They might feel like, 'I don't care if it's better for me. I care about harming you.'"
The Loss of Legitimacy
Of course, Goodell has shown no signs of offering any olive branches, reevaluating his decision structure or even articulating just why he is continuing the Deflategate fight. His brief statement about appealing Judge Berman's ruling waved "the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game" around as his rationale, even though Judge Berman stopped just short of telling Goodell he has no real grasp of his collectively bargained responsibilities.
There's no victory to be had here, but Goodell has no one to tell him to quit fighting, and he has lost the perspective to see that for himself.
"There are two forms of legitimacy for a person in power like Goodell," Galinsky said. "You have legitimacy within your league, among the players and owners, and then you have legitimacy outside your league in terms of how other people want to evaluate you."
Goodell's legitimacy on both fronts has been deteriorating for four years. "He's basically pissed off both his constituencies," Galinsky said. "He can't get any of the stakeholders to support his decisions."
That's not quite true. Owners still support Goodell, though that support has to be eroding and growing more conditional each time the NFL fails, publicly and embarrassingly, to solve both challenging and trivial problems. But players know they have the power to challenge Goodell at every turn. They can win in the courts and the court of public opinion.
There is simply no way to climb down this tree by growing more dictatorial, combative and withdrawn. It's time for Goodell to admit some weakness so he can grow stronger. The experts say it is hard for a CEO (or any individual) to do. But if Goodell doesn't do it, the NFL may soon have to find a successor who will.
The Deflategate stakes obviously aren't as high as the Cuban Missile Crisis, though it's an easy mistake to make after seven months of coverage. But Goodell's stubbornness is blowing up something it took the NFL decades to build. If he doesn't start finding smarter solutions, his next mistake could be his last.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.