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Leadership and NFL’s Roger Goodell

October 21, 2014

When watching our favorite football teams play on Sunday afternoons, the last thing we want to think about is domestic abuse.  Yet the video images of Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancee in an elevator has caused some in the public to stop watching NFL football games.   Although players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have received public condemnation for their acts,  it has been NFL  commissioner Roger Goodell who has faced the most criticism for his handling of the  Ray Rice case.   When TMZ Sports release the grainy Ray Rice video, the firestorm of criticism intensified to the point where many have called for the resignation of Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner.  Before this video became public, Goodell had already assigned a two game suspension of Rice (there are disputes as to whether or not the NFL league saw the video prior to the suspension.) A penalty that outraged many in the sports world who felt the penalty was not nearly strong enough.

Judging by rhetorical scholar Kirt Wilson’s ideas on leadership,  Goodell forgot two important parts of leadership required in a billion dollar organization like the NFL.   The first is that “leadership” for the players and franchise owners is not necessarily leadership for the general public.  Goodell’s handing down a two game suspension penalty for Rice was consistent with penalties for other first time offenders but was not consistent with the league’s attempts to cultivate and increase the female audience.   Goodell has also weakened the NFL’s most famous campaign of players wearing pink during games in October for breast cancer awareness[ month. Some corporate sponsors have  withdrawn their partnership  dollars completely and others in media argue that the NFL is “tone deaf.

The second point of leadership fumbled by Goodell is that the public plays an active role in leadership.  In other words, the public via their viewership dollars allows Goodell to lead. It’s never a good thing to have national television shows like Good Morning America or The View showing video of one of the league’s best players assaulting a woman.   This widespread  outrage has caused some some major advertisers including the NFl’s biggest sponsor Budweiser to publicly state their concern over Goodell’s handling of the Rice case.

We can look at Goodell’s multiple attempts to quiet the storm of outrage as examples of “rhetorical leadership.”  In other words leadership is directly connected to the “nature and practice of rhetoric.” Despite giving a one on one interview to CBS News to address the Ray Rice case, the controversy continued to grow and Goodell found it necessary to hold a press conference two weeks later to address the issue again:

“Unfortunately over the past several weeks, we have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong.  That starts with me. I said this before, back on August 28th, and I say it again now – I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. I am sorry for that. I got it wrong on a number of levels – from the process that I led to the decision that I reached.”

Goodell takes responsibility for his handling of the case in attempt to rebuild his damaged credibility and reestablish a moral center.   Then he lays out a plan for the future to meet the demands of his critics:

“These incidents demonstrate that we can use the NFL to help create change not only in our league but in society with respect to domestic violence and sexual assault…We will reexamine, enhance and improve all of our current programs – and then we’ll do more.”

Despite his best efforts, Goodell’s press conference persuaded few.  Based on the reaction of the public, I would argue that Goodell’s handling of the case has caused some to question his morality.  In other words, this backlash towards Goodell gives the perception that he committed a more egregious act than Rice.   If Goodell’s own morality is being questioned, then his public apologies are useless because effective leadership must adhere to Quintilian’s notion of the ideal orator being “a good [person] speaking well.”

If you want to know more:

  • Here are a series of articles on rhetorical leadership listed on the UW-Milwaukee Rhetorical Leadership web page.  Also the book The Presidency and Rhetorical Leadership edited by Leroy G. Dorsey is another good source for the definition of rhetorical leadership.
  • Kirt Wilson views on leadership, as argued in his essay titled “The Paradox of Lincoln’s Rhetorical Leadership,” centers around his argument that the Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s “greatest moment of leadership.”
  • The relationship between ethics, rhetoric and leadership is discussed in Language of Leadership by Roger Soder.
  • Quinitilian’s the “ideal orator” is in Book 2 – Chapter 15 of his Institutes of Oratory
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