There’s a phrase that is used incessantly about the National Football League – ‘protect the shield’.

In short – don’t do anything that would embarrass or bring unwanted attention to the NFL. Unfortunately for the League, one of the greatest embarrassments to the shield of late has been its commissioner, Roger Goodell. In the U.S. at least it’s been nearly impossible to avoid the spectacle of ugliness around the Ray Rice incident of domestic violence. You can read a summary timeline here in case you’re unfamiliar with the situation.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way - Rice’s actions are inexcusable, ugly and deplorable on every level. The simple fact is his punishment from the NFL should have been more severe from the start. Goodell and the NFL’s inability to act appropriately in the handling of the Rice incident has shifted the focus from that despicable action, to the League itself.

Goodell, the NFL owners and the League at large, which has reaped billions of dollars in profits from fans like me, is facing a bona fide crisis of faith. We’re questioning their leadership and generally have been left with the distaste of being regarded as simpletons who will mindlessly buy their product – no matter how badly the League, or their players, conduct themselves. Major League Baseball, and their slow downward spiral in popularity, should be a cautionary tale for the NFL of what can happen when you fail to manage issues on, and off, the field. And while the implications from this entire scandal will likely be long and far reaching, there are some actions Goodell and the NFL could take right now to help restore an inkling of credibility:

Make the 3rd party investigation of the Ray Rice incident real – not a good ole’ boy get together.

·       The NFL has announced that former FBI head Robert S Mueller III will lead an investigation into the League’s handling of the Rice fiasco. But Mueller III will report into two owners of NFL teams. 

·       To begin to rebuild some level of believability, Goodell must displace any hint of cronyism and empower a true third party to investigate the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice incident, as well as conduct an audit of how they have handled all previous domestic violence cases – and make recommendations on penalties for future issues. Of which there are already too many.

·       A respectable 3rd party has to handle the investigation and any associated penalties. Perhaps someone who has familiarity with the League and its practices would work?

Drop your hammer on yourself.

·       When Goodell first started his tenure as commissioner he quickly built a reputation as a stern disciplinarian, often (seeming) eager to dole out harsh fines and suspensions. Something a few former players who were tagged by Goodell have taken relish in pointing out to him now.

·       Goodell has said he is ‘accountable’ for the light sentencing of Rice in the first place, and ultimately he has held others accountable (Sean Payton) in the NFL for ensuring they run a tight ship. There would be zero disruption to the NFL if Goodell stepped aside and effectively suspended himself (without pay) while the third-party investigation is conducted. Players would still take the field, coaches would still coach, and referees would throw too many flags. All would be right with the world. But Goodell could mitigate the damage he has done to the shield by simply removing himself (temporarily) and separating the investigation from the game as much as possible.

Lastly, and this is the step that is the most important: Drive actual CHANGE in your League.

·       I love watching Herm Edwards speak to rookies of the NFL. But watch these videos and track how many times you hear ‘protect the shield’, and how many times you hear him talk about doing the right thing when it comes to respecting women and/or how managing yourself in conflict. To be fair, Herm does touch on both (though not so directly on domestic violence) but the proportion is arguably lopsided.

·       Women are increasingly a key segment of the NFL fan base. But what voice do they have in how the League helps grow their players off the field? How many women were in the room when Janay Rice spoke about the incident with members of the Baltimore Ravens, her husband’s attorney and NFL reps, including Goodell?  The over/under is set at 1.5 (hint: don’t bet the over). The NFL’s handling of how they spoke with Janay Rice about the incident showcases their ignorance and insensitivity on domestic violence to an embarrassing degree.

·       The National Organization of Women has been vocal in their perspective on Goodell and the Rice situation. Sometimes it takes a crisis to drive change – and the NFL should seize this as a chance to shake themselves out of a stupor and recognize that if you’re going to ask women to buy tickets and jerseys, participate in fantasy football and in general buy your product - then you better start thinking about how you are giving them a prominent seat at the table on how your business is run overall.

This is far from a simple issue, and there is no way that this is a checkbox of ‘do these 3 things and you’re good!’, regarding the ripple effects of the Rice issue, let alone domestic violence overall.

But if the NFL wants to bring any measure of authenticity back to itself – they could begin by stopping their self-inflicted harm of the shield, and begin repairing it. 

Kent Hollenbeck is West Coast VP at Matter Communications