Roger Goodell’s Power Play

From my most recent article at

It sure looks like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady cheated. The evidence indicates it. The witnesses attest to it. During last season’s AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, Brady allegedly had a ball boy deflate several footballs below the National Football League’s stipulated air pressure so he could gain a bit of an advantage. Then the Patriots hammered the air out of the Colts too, 45-7. This week NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell returned the favor by suspending Brady for four games, fining the Patriots $1 million, and taking away two draft picks. Yesterday, the NFL Players Association appealed the suspension on Brady’s behalf.

Brady broke a rule, or clearly appears to have, and then compounded his trouble by hindering the NFL’s investigation of his misdeed. We must acknowledge that this isn’t the first time his team has been caught cheating. (Remember “Spygate”?) These are the unimpeachable facts.

But as we examine the situation and what we can learn from it, it’s worth noting a couple counterpoints as well. First, a slightly deflated football offers minimal advantage—certainly not 38 points’ worth. It’s a matter of comfort for the quarterback more than anything. Second, several prominent NFL players over the years have admitted to manipulating equipment to their advantage. Neither of these facts acquits Brady or the Patriots, but they’re important for context.

More than anything the situation looks like an instance of power run amuck, of an authority structure without actual structure.

. . .

When power, in this case Goodell’s, is unchecked for too long it can take a sinister turn. More than simply overreacting or being unfair it can become spiteful or malicious, and this situation smacks of that. Goodell has been roundly criticized for his handling of past disciplinary issues, so the harsh punishment of Brady and the Patriots looks a lot more like making a point and putting them in their place than it does justice. His heavy handedness looks more like backlash at their refusal to cooperate than actual fair discipline.

Good leadership takes the opposite shape of this situation. These leaders seek equity and fairness. They make sensible rules and back them up with fitting penalties. Instead of creating policies and forcing people to follow them, good leaders create policies that seek the best for people.

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