Short Yardage vs. the Long Game: The NFL’s Fumble

NFL Referee LockoutWould you risk your company’s reputation in an attempt to save what amounts to 0.16% of your annual revenue?

The owners of the NFL franchises have spent decades building the league’s reputation as a trustworthy, venerable institution – with a lot of success. Now, literally in the blink of an eye, the NFL has risked its credibility for relative peanuts.

In case you haven’t heard, the NFL has locked its referees out because they didn’t want to switch their pension plan from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution model. A hill to die on? Not.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Referees missing calls isn’t quite news (insert your favorite blind ref joke here). Across all sports, poor decisions are made that affect the outcome of games. What makes the NFL’s referee lockout so newsworthy are the repeated bad calls the league has made.

The NFL made an initial, and forgivable, mistake by not standing by its refs. True, the NFL is a business, and it’s hard to overlook $16 million a year. But by not taking responsibility for their mistake, they are compounding the problem, letting it grow and sacrificing their reputation in the process.

When yesterday they unequivocally denied that a mistake was even made, they simply added further tension to an already stressed situation.

Time to Call an Audible

The NFL’s denial of the controversy is a classic example of institutional refusal to face facts confronting a failure of trust. The desire to cover up – from Watergate to Penn State – runs deep.

But this season is still young; there’s time to resolve the issue and begin to rebuild the lost trust. If the NFL acts humbly, admits its mistakes and ends the lockout, all can be forgotten in a matter of weeks or even days.

But the longer they refuse to admit the breach of trust, the more trust they’ll leave on the field.