I love football.

While I've never had season tickets or a team-logo tattoo, football has always been a big part of my life, and even my career. In my first job, as a ballpark food vendor at Milwaukee County Stadium, I sold peanuts at Green Bay Packers games, back when they played there part-time. In my previous job, I visited Lambeau Field to watch training camp and interview the team's president. I still have the locker-room media pass on my desk.

But when the news alert flashed on my iPhone that the NFL owners committee passed a new rule imposing fines on teams whose players kneel in protest during the national anthem, my reaction was a sigh of relief:

I don't have to watch football anymore. It's over.

In one ham-handed, ill-conceived stroke, commissioner Roger Goodell and his bosses have finally accomplished the thing they've been trying to do for years through virtually every other collective decision of theirs. They've given me an excuse to take back my Sundays.

And Mondays. And Saturdays. and Thursdays. 

You don't have to be a fan of Colin Kaepernick's activism to think the NFL, as an entertainment product, has become increasingly hard to enjoy the past few years. The average duration of games has crept past the three-hour mark even as the schedule metastasizes throughout the week, which means increasing viewer fatigue. A multi-year player safety campaign has done nothing to curb the prevalence of conscience-shocking collisions that leave players praying their teammate will walk again. (That kind of kneeling is just fine with the owners, apparently.) When the outcomes of games aren't decided by injuries, they're determined by novel interpretations of arcane rules governing aspects of the game as seemingly unchanging as what constitutes a catch. With every rewrite, the rule book is less and less about preserving the essence and history of the sport and more and more about giving the fans what they want, or are perceived to want. High-scoring shootouts, yes; excessively choreographed celebrations, no.

What links these developments together is they are all the product of a certain brand of leadership: the weak, reactive, risk-averse kind. Anti-leadership, really. Controlled by billionaires anxious to see their assets grow in value from one season to the next and lacking any meaningful counterweight, the NFL's ownership committee is temperamentally incapable of taking any action that would entail a drop in short-term revenue--even if it shored up the league's long-term survival odds. 

Faced with the opportunity to make a tough call today that will save pain down the road, the owners always--if you'll excuse the expression--punt. Or, like Charlie Brown, they wind up, kick air, and end up on their backs. 

That's how it played out with the kneeling controversy. The league's longstanding allergy to anything that might constitute a "distraction" made it an easy target--first for the protest, then for an opportunistic and politicized counterprotest, led by none other than President Trump. Rather than take a stance, the owners tried to split the baby, King Solomon-style, saying, in effect, while there's no rule against kneeling during the anthem now, we might make one later. That had no effect but to ensure the controversy would resurface during the offseason.

Apparently, no one told the owners that King Solomon's proposal to cut the baby in half was a bluff, because the kneeling rule adopted this week is another baby-splitter. In saying the national anthem shouldn't be politicized, the owners in effect accepted one political side's interpretation of the anthem protests over the other's. While the new rule leaves room for dissent in the form of staying in the locker room, neither side views that as a serious concession. For proof, look no farther than Vice President Mike Pence's end-zone spike of a tweet.

It doesn't have to be this way. Although the NBA has its own rule against protests during the anthem, the basketball association has been generally much more comfortable with strong political speech by its star players and coaches, people like LeBron James and Gregg Popovich. While NFL owners entertain dreams of a longer (and therefore more punishing) season, the NBA has been making real progress on keeping its stars healthier by spacing out games and reducing travel

There are straightforward economic reasons for the differences in the ways the two leagues treat their talent. With NBA rosters capped at 15, and with rich secondary markets for basketball talent in Europe and China, those athletes simply have more leverage. A superstar like James would be a superstar anywhere he went, while his departure would have a measurable impact on the NBA's TV ratings. (Speaking of ratings, the NBA's have been going up, while the NFL's have been in decline.)

The principal owners of all the teams in both leagues are all Caucasian (with the exception of Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who is from Pakistan). That creates a huge cultural blind spot for entertainment businesses seeking to market themselves to young audiences in an increasingly multiethnic country. Seeing their interests as aligned with their players' job satisfaction helps NBA owners mitigate that risk.  

Although the dynamics of their labor market allow NFL owners to dictate terms to players rather than listening to them, they ought to consider the latter, because the league desperately needs leadership help. Without a strong outside force to clarify its thinking, the owners' committee is caught in a classic leadership trap.

In the new "Best Workplaces" issue of Inc., I profiled the business-software startup Asana, which has a unique approach to decision making. Every piece of company work requiring a decision falls within the purview of a single individual, who has sole responsibility for that decision. Justin Rosenstein, Asana's co-founder, told me that model was conceived in part as a reaction to the consensus-based decision making process he experienced at Google, which he called "a living hell." 

Committees are risk averse by nature, but that doesn't mean they're good at averting risk. At best, they're good at kicking it down the road. Bold decisions require bold individuals--the kind who know trying to split the baby every time just leaves you with a pile of dead babies. 

Published on: May 24, 2018