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Sports

March 28, 2014

NFL commissioner urges respect for 'the shield'

Roger Goodell's plea for respect from team owners and league execs reflects the NFL commissioner's deep concerns over how successive scandals are tarnishing the image of pro football.

It would be easy to dismiss National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell’s opening remarks at this week’s owners meeting in Orlando as a poor rendition of Aretha Franklin’s career-making classic “Respect”.

Then again, Goodell's statement could be much more than that. While the NFL is the most profitable league in sports, with revenues of about $10 billion a year, the respect he discussed wasn’t about the size of a bank account but how those in the league treat others.

As a business, the NFL has no peer in sports. As a collection of individuals, it has reflected a weakness in its dealings with others. Maybe the competitive nature of professional football explains some of the internal failings, but that’s no excuse.

Goodell made that clear as he simply and directly made a pitch – a plea – for team owners and top executives to appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” as a former president once said.

Respect, Goodell said, should serve as a guide for the future: “Respect for our game and those that came before us. Respect for each other - teams, opponents and game officials. Respect for our fans, our lifeblood. Respect in our workplaces for the diversity that makes us stronger. Respect for our communities and the important role we play in those communities. It’s about the significance of being part of this, ‘The Shield’.”

The NFL's iconic red, white and blue logo is a statement of strength. Unfortunately, “The Shield” and what it represents has been tarnished in recent years.

First and foremost were the disgraceful actions in Miami where good-natured ribbing was replaced by harassment and bullying. Soon Jonathan Martin’s season came to an end with claims of a mental breakdown, and Richie Incognito was sent packing amid allegations of a workplace scandal.

That was just one sordid example of what's wrong with pro ball. Taunting – mostly through use of extreme profanity and racial slurs – has escalated to the point that it's no longer just boys being boys but a problem that reflects poorly on the NFL’s once sterling reputation. When Missouri standout Michael Sam announced he was gay and wanted a job on an NFL team, the league knew it had a potential public relations problem that it needed to get ahead of.

Divisive issues continued over the appropriateness of a team's continued use of the nickname “Redskins." Then, one of the NFL’s most influential owners was jailed on suspicion of driving under the influence and drug possession.

For a league that guards its reputation as closely as Fort Knox does the nation’s supply of gold, Goodell knew he had to take a strong stand. His declaration in Orlando was more than a challenge from the commissioner’s office. It was a directive to everyone that lax enforcement of rules – on the field and throughout the organization - is over.

“It’s about the significance of being part of this – the shield,” said Goodell, calling on owners to step up and make a difference. “We’re expected to do that – by our fans, our business partners and others. We can and we will.”

Professional athletes and the teams they represent are role models, whether they want to be or not. Their actions are emulated.

No doubt Goodell was looking after the NFL’s best interests, but maybe he was thinking about the greater good his sport can do. In emphasizing the importance of acting responsibly for the league and its players, perhaps Goodwell was thinking his message would be heard by the NFL’s many fans and followers.

Aretha Franklin wanted someone to show her a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln called on people across a divided land to put aside their differences and draw upon “the better angels.”

The contexts may have been vastly different, but somewhere both knew there was a better way.

Goodell’s assessment of conditions in the NFL is spot-on. This is a crucial time for the league and how it addresses its problems. He made that perfectly clear to the owners. Hopefully they were listening.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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