The NFL Shows That Culture Change (Or the Lack of It) Starts at the Top

Posted 09.12.2014

uphillclimbIn the annals of interesting timing, it doesn’t get much better than an article that ran in the Financial Times this past Monday morning. It was a piece titled, “The HR Guy Cleaning Up NFL Locker Rooms” and described how the League’s new head of HR is on a mission to get rid of bullying, homophobia and racist language in the workplaces of the NFL’s 32 teams. As the new NFL CHRO, Robert Gulliver, said in the article, “Football is special and important, but this is also a workplace and we have to reinforce the idea that there are certain standards of workplace conduct.”

Nice sentiment. And then, as anyone who was exposed to cable news or the internet over the past week knows, on Monday afternoon the celebrity gossip site TMZ released the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancé (now wife) in an elevator. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended Rice for two games a few months ago when another video clip showed him dragging his fiancé out of the elevator after knocking her out.  Hardly anyone felt like a two game suspension was enough punishment but Goodell stuck with his decision on Rice. He stuck with it until the second video of the punch became public. Within hours, Rice was cut from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the NFL. And now we’re down to a case of what did Goodell and the League know about the Rice case and when did they know it? The timeline will be investigated by a former director of the FBI.

Which brings me back to the Financial Times article. In opening the piece, the columnist Andrew Hill writes that “even by the thankless Sisyphean standard of such culture-change programs, the National Football League is beginning at the foot of the hill.” Later, in summing up the task before the HR chief Gulliver, Hill writes, “So if you are standing at the bottom of the mountain, worrying about the long ascent, remind yourself that the worst thing you can do is to delay starting the climb.”

Fair enough, but you can’t expect to make the climb by yourself. The challenge facing Robert Gulliver or anyone else responsible for a culture-change program is that there has to be alignment between what you’re asking people to do and what those same people see from the top leadership. The hypocritical, craven way in which the NFL has handled the Ray Rice domestic abuse case renders any meaningful chance of culture-change mute. Culture change doesn’t start with a program, it starts with top leadership. And, in that respect, the NFL is sorely lacking.

What’s your take?