NFL’s Goodell Faces Leadership Challenge in Latest Patriots Discipline Probe

The sports metaphors are overflowing when it comes to the challenge that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faces with the prospect of investigating and meting out appropriate punishment for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Let’s just say this: Welcome to the big leagues.

As the NFL considers punishment options for Kraft after his arrest for soliciting prostitution at two south Florida massage parlors, Goodell’s task is made more difficult by his and the league’s past inconsistencies in disciplining players, personnel and owners.

To top it off, Goodell and the NFL are on record as pledging that league owners should be held to a “higher standard” under the organization’s personal conduct policy. Finally, the charges against Goodell are particularly sensitive given that this is just the latest NFL investigation related to offenses against women.

According to police reports, the 77-year-old Kraft was twice videotaped in a sex act at a shopping-center massage parlor in Florida. The charges came amid a crackdown on sex trafficking in which hundreds of arrest warrants were issued.

With such high stakes, any action that Goodell takes will almost certainly be met with some amount of armchair quarterbacking. But leaders in these situations can and should take certain steps to make sure the outcome is as transparent and objective as possible. That’s the ultimate antidote to criticism and second-guessing.

In isolation, some might think it’s a mistake for an organization to hold some members to a higher standard. In reality, there’s a strong argument for such a policy. After all, we expect leaders to lead, and therefore it’s reasonable to expect them to lead by example.

Goodell certainly faces a tough task, but it’s not uncommon at all in business. CEOs frequently come under harsh public scrutiny, and there are ways that corporate boards ensure an objective investigation. That almost always starts with the use of competent outside counsel with no previous ties to the organization to conduct a thoroughly independent probe. Once the outside review has concluded and findings have been reached, the NFL should follow those discipline recommendations and release as much detail as possible about how and why its decisions were made. Such transparency is the only way to avoid the kind of what-about-isms that can sabotage even the best-laid plans.

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