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The NFL Got It Wrong — and Leaders Should Pay Attention

I’m talking Deflate-gate … It’s been all over the news since the start of 2015. The New England Patriots let air out of the footballs used in their playoff, making the ball easier to catch and hold onto, which likely influenced the outcome of those games.

Once the season ended, the NFL launched an investigation into the allegations. Last week, they released their findings and sanctions against the New England Patriots. The Patriots franchise QB was suspended for the first 4 games of the season and the organization was fined $1,000,000 …. Whoop-dee-doo!!

The NFL got it wrong.

And we should pay close attention so we don’t repeat the same mistakes in our own organizations.

The NFL gave more harsh punishment for off-the-field conduct than on-the-field.

Remember Michael Vick? Ray Rice? The NFL acted swiftly and dropped a loud, heavy hammer on them for their off-the-field issues. I agreed with and supported the quick reaction and the decisions. However, if they’re going to go hard for conduct outside of work, they should go hard-ER for lapses of integrity at work … As leaders in our organizations, we should make better choices. If we’re going to monitor and discipline personal conduct outside the office, we must be prepared to hold the standard even higher for conduct inside the office.

The NFL treated minority players differently.

I’m not going to get into racial conspiracy theories on why — but there’s no denying that Tom Brady is white and the other players mentioned are not. Perhaps the NFL didn’t consider this in making their decision. Perhaps, in today’s racial climate, they should have … As leaders in our organizations, we have to be mindful of disparate treatment and impact in our employment decisions. We have to make sure our decisions are thoughtful and can withstand legal scrutiny if challenged.

The NFL didn’t send a consistent message.

Back in 2012, the New Orleans Saints were exposed for giving bonuses to players for causing injuries to opponents with hard hits. Labeled “Bounty-gate”, the investigation resulted in indefinite suspensions for coaches, players and front office staff as well as loss of draft picks, record-setting financial sanctions and a required certification program against bounty programs. The NFL commissioner spoke out publicly against the practice of bounty hitting to deliberately injure other players. I agreed with and supported this, too. However, the same level of outrage seemed to be missing in this instance. And it is difficult to understand why … As leaders in our organizations, we have to be equally outraged for all flagrant violations of our standards of conduct. We must also be consistent with our punishments for egregious infractions.

The NFL issued a punishment that won’t really hurt the offenders or deter others.

Losing the QB for games against team who aren’t contenders for anything but the top pick in next year’s draft doesn’t hurt the team or the QB’s bank account. The organizational fine will be paid for without batting an eye — in fact, fans have already started a GoFundMe campaign to help the team pay the money. Most were expecting sweeping suspensions, crippling fines and stripped titles — instead, we got the equivalent of a hand spank on a two-year-old … As leaders in our organizations, we have to send clear messages about expected and acceptable behavior. We should not miss the opportunity to use discipline as an example for others not to follow.

I’m not one to rank one thing as being more horrible than another. I believe you can be outraged equally about more than one thing at a time. In my world, cheating and lying about it are just as outrageous as causing safety risk to other employees and being arrested for a violent crime … Not so much the case if I worked for the NFL.

Make sure the decisions you make about employee behavior and conduct are really sending the messages you want to send to your managers, employees, vendors and customers about the kind of business you run and the kind of people you will associate with. At some point, this might mean taking harsh disciplinary action against one of the most popular, high-performing, well-known, revered people in the organization.

When that moment comes, don’t punk out.