In late January of 2014 I sat at the end of a conference table filled with a mixture of representatives from the National Football League. The committee had been tasked with finding a replacement for the departing Ray Anderson, Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Always believing that something better is around the corner, I reached for an opportunity to interview for the position in hopes that I could make a difference at a much higher level than even running a Player Personnel Office for one of the thirty-two teams.
The committee was comprised of both men and women from a fairly broad range of NFL departments and was tasked, at least in my opinion, with filtering out those they felt didn’t have the communication skills or necessary charisma to handle the job. I was given about 20 or 30 minutes to make my presentation to the committee, whereby follow up questions were allowed, and then one on one interviews with few key players in the Front Office.
Having some knowledge of who the other candidates were or might be, I felt I’d have to convey a rather unique vision for the position to even catch their attention, taking into account the tremendous popularity and financial power of the game at that very moment (Denver and Seattle were headed into Super Bowl XLVIII right there in New York City, and the minds of the committee were clearly anywhere but on the current task at hand). I’d come prepared to present a different approach, one of strengthening the game from within by focusing squarely upon maximizing the on and off field potential of what I called the two cornerstones of the game; players and coaches/staff.
Emphasis would be on the ongoing development of the “people” in those areas, not the standard lip service and checkmark leadership so often used in dealing with players and coaches, but a real comprehensive “birth to earth” program. As I progressed through my presentation I could sense an understanding of the angle, but a bit of “uneasiness” as I described my vision for overseeing Football Operations. The ensuing questions were thoughtful, though not overly thought provoking in their points. Again, these people had been charged with nothing more than a recommendation towards the final decision, not the decision itself.
After taking more than the allotted time to convey my points, and having fully answered the sidebar questions, I was summoned to the offices of two of the top lieutenants of the Commissioner. Both had been busy with Super Bowl preparations and didn’t have much time for formal Q&A, rather this was going to be a cut to the chase, “What do you really think?” opportunity for me.
The first started with what can only be described as a patronizing lecture from a newly hired higher up that “the League had a lot good people and plenty of good momentum, and didn’t really need a change. The people here had worked long and hard to get to where they’d gotten, and WHO was I to come in with replacement parts and new ideas?”
I hadn’t even had a chance to say my first word. Not one word.
So when he finally finished, I proceeded to explain my thoughts of the Football Operations “pyramid” and how I’d strengthen the base of players and coaches, how that would balance competition, and how in the end the game would be that much better for it.
“Thanks, good luck to you and we appreciate you coming by.”
Next, I went to the office of the one of the TOP execs in the NFL. We’d become acquainted when I was GM in Denver and had since stayed in touch as various leadership opportunities emerged around the League.
“What’s the number one problem facing the NFL today?” he asked.
I immediately shifted into full gear on my vision for Player Development and the “Whole Man” approach to building professional football players and coaches at both the club and League levels. I went through my thoughts on the pyramid, broke down my special points of interest/emphasis, and explained how it would all mesh together to strengthen the number one asset of the game (its people), in turn strengthening the game itself.
“No really, what’s the number one thing wrong with the game? You’re on the outside now looking in, what do you see?”
“Uh, defensive pass interference penalties?”
I had entirely miscalculated the internal understanding of what I deemed the point blank issue to be, and then realized at that very moment “The Emperor has no clothes.”
Since that cold January interview, the NFL has gone through such high profile cases as Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Aaron Hernandez, Jonathan Dwyer, Tom Brady & “Deflategate”, Aldon Smith, Geno Smith & IK Enemkpali. I could go on with other, more “minor” cases as well but you get the picture. The result with each instance appeared to be a toughening of policies and disciplinary actions by the NFL, and the results feeling much like a dog chasing his tail.
I recall from my days at the Air Force Academy in the early ‘80’s, when it seemed that the only way the military felt they could catch your attention or garner your compliance was through adherence to rigid disciplinary standards and strictly enforced punitive actions. That only created, some might say, a cynical sentiment for the military in general, and served only to push away former Air Force cadets from giving back to the Academy after they left.
Don’t get me wrong, something must be done to ensure that both the brand of the National Football League and the future of young athletes aren’t tarnished to stupid and irresponsible behavior. But what has happened is the clash of the will of big business with the predictable defiance of organized labor. Collective Bargaining Agreements and Federal Court rulings set the tone for a workplace and generation of young person already skeptically rebellious of authority figures.
I know it won’t and for that matter probably can’t happen. But for just one moment let’s imagine our game without lawyers, lawsuits, appeals, and suspensions to setting the tone and defining the culture of the game. Imagine the game where conduct/discipline was policed and administered from within. Where the ultimate authority landed in the hands of those that built and are building the game of professional football.
I would submit the notion of a Peer Council in the National Football League that oversaw both the judgment and enforcement of conduct policies and the disciplinary action for players, coaches, and administrators across the League.
Hold that thought and let’s discuss in my next post.
“Pressure has the power to create a diamond, but it has to be the “right” pressure.”
― Shannon L. Alder