The National Football League has thrown its weight around to grow into a $10 billion entertainment colossus, and already has its sights firmly set on doubling. It is swiftly becoming apparent just how many victims of the sport’s violence routinely get trampled by this gladiatorial march toward greater lucre. Only the moral compasses of sponsors and television partners have a commanding enough offense to reform this uniquely American athletic institution.
Over the past two weeks, a series of shameful incidents have flared up to invite a backlash. A videotape showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching out his then fiancée in a casino elevator surfaced, making the league’s earlier decision to suspend him for just two weeks look soft.
Then, the Minnesota Vikings opted to let superstar Adrian Peterson play after he was indicted for whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch. The high-profile domestic violence problems follow last year’s $765 million settlement with retired players facing brain damage and an ongoing controversy over the use of the Redskins team name, which is offensive to some Native Americans, by its Washington franchise.
These are only the latest incidents to besmirch a sport that emerged a century ago from the playing fields of Ivy League colleges and grew into the money-making machine it is today.
Last year, New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was indicted on three murder charges and is being held without bail. In 2007, Michael Vick was ordered to serve 23 months in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, for engaging in a dog-fighting gambling ring. He now plays for the New York Jets. Two years later, Plaxico Burress, who scored the winning touchdown for the New York Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl, was sentenced to two years in prison after shooting himself in the leg in a Manhattan nightclub with an unlicensed handgun.
The NFL’s enormous TV audiences have held up through the ordeals. It took pressure from companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Visa and Procter & Gamble to bench Peterson. Pepsi boss Indra Nooyi backed league commissioner Roger Goodell, saying she knew he would “do the right thing” about the “repugnant behavior of a few players.” Nike suspended its endorsements of Peterson and Rice, but will stick with its $1.1 billion deal to supply the league with apparel. TD Ameritrade said it was “very much considering its future” as a sponsor.
Anheuser-Busch, whose advertisements for Budweiser are ubiquitous on Sunday football telecasts and often the toast of the priciest Super Bowl spots, said it was “disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season.”
In addition to enhancing such relationships since ascending to run the league in 2006, Goodell has enriched team owners and himself in myriad other ways, too. New contracts with Fox, CBS and NBC reaped $3.1 billion a year, about a third more than the previous ones. Satellite operator DirecTV paid 40 percent more when it renewed in 2009. A live-streaming deal with Verizon brought in a new $1 billion. Goodell, a former high school football star and the son of a U.S. senator, took home over $44 million in pay in 2012.
Institutions far richer than the NFL, including Lehman Brothers, Enron and Long-Term Capital Management, have collapsed under the weight of their own short-term greed and hubris. Scandals at powerful organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and universities such as Penn State caused devotees to abandon faith.
Sports, even one as beloved as football, also aren’t impervious to being disrupted. Boxing ruled the zeitgeist for a big part of the 20th century, until corruption and brutality helped inspire broadcasters and advertisers to look elsewhere.
The NFL has even managed to awaken a slumbering Congress, where New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who played varsity football at Stanford University, proposed this week to end the league’s puzzling tax-exempt status. For now, though, Corporate America is merely using the bully pulpit to stand up to the bully. Before there is any meaningful change to the culture that threatens the league’s long-term prospects, they will have to hit the NFL where it hurts.