Triple Crown Leadership

Triple Crown Leadership

The NFL’s Replacement Ref Debacle

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Football (American) Referee

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Indecisiveness, loss of control, delayed decisions, anger, and outrage.

We’re not talking about the blown calls of the unfortunate Division III refs thrown into the national spotlight due to a labor dispute. We’re talking about the National Football League, arguably the greatest sports organization in the world.

How could the NFL have botched it so badly?

What leadership lessons can we learn from this fiasco?

The NFL incurred huge brand damage for the piddly dollars involved (about $3 million) for the 121 regular, unionized referees. League revenue is just under $10 billion. The League locked out the regular refs in a labor dispute (ditto the players last year).

Pressure to settle the lockout mounted after a blown call that changed the outcome of the Packers-Seahawks game during Monday Night Football. President Obama and Mitt Romney weighed in, along with countless fans and pundits nationwide. A mere five days after the outrage crescendo, a new eight-year deal was finalized. The games on Sunday were without controversy.

Our beef is not with the positions of either side, nor with the hapless replacement refs, who did the best they could.

The NFL has a mindset problem. The League has evidenced a win/lose, hard-line mentality in dealing with issues. That mindset is the vestige of an old leadership model, perhaps used by team owners to amass their fortunes, but rapidly going out of style today.

The NFL’s position smacked of arrogance, control, and reflected poorly on the regular refs. The NFL’s EVP of football operations insulted the regular refs when he said, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate.” How inept. That’s a “personal foul.”

The League should be embarrassed. (League commissioner Roger Goodell did apologize afterwards.) But we see no indication that a mindset change is underway. That’s the leadership issue.

The owners call the game a “product,” but it is more than that to fans. Just ask the cheese-heads in Green Bay and the Broncos fanatics in Denver.

Some call the League’s lockout stance greedy, but we doubt that. Only a tiny fraction of their revenue was at stake. They take hard lines because they want to control the game.

Sports consultant Rob Tilliss said the NFL’s hard line on the referees is in keeping with its disciplined approach to business and labor. “The problem they have now is everyone is talking about their integrity and the integrity of the game.” It’s not a good sign when customers question an organization’s integrity.

The NFL Players Association issued a letter during the lockout saying:

“As players, we see this game as more than the ‘product’ you reference at times. You cannot simply switch to a group of cheaper officials and fulfill your legal, moral, and duty obligations to us and our fans…. We are all men who love and respect this game and believe that it represents something beyond just money. For our teammates, our coaches and our fans who deserve better, vote to end this lockout now.”

The NFL is a nonprofit corporation, whose commissioner is mandated to be a person of integrity and to have no financial interest in any sport.

Our review of the NFL’s website, Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions passed by the League reveals no inspiring mission or values to guide their leaders’ behavior. Instead they detail massive, unilateral powers for the commissioner–powers which some critics complain strip players and others of due process.

The League is bound by decisions of the commissioner, who chairs any executive session meeting of the League, and appoints whomever he wishes to his staff. The Executive Committee consists of an unwieldy one member from each team (32), and it has no power to change fines, suspensions, or penalties imposed by the commissioner.

Such powers in the hands of any CEO are dangerous. Where are the reasonable checks and balances of an independent board, or even a small, independent executive committee that might better guide the staff on difficult issues?

The NFL should have anticipated a possible referee impasse and better trained and vetted potential replacements, or recognized the regular officials are critical to the integrity of the game and not treated them so disdainfully.

Is the NFL has a poor leadership and governance structure. The commissioner is too powerful. There is inadequate oversight from an independent board. There is a controlling mindset, demeaning the interests of many stakeholders.

The NFL has done many things well but gets a penalty for its leadership. And in dealing with its refs, we’d flag it for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”


Bob and Gregg Vanourek are big-time Broncos fans and authors of the new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill, 2012), based on interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries.
Twitter: @TripleCrownLead


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