Organizations as big and powerful as the NFL should be much slicker in handling spin and shaping perception. But the NFL routinely falls to a level you’d expect from mom-and-pop outfits unexpectedly thrust into the national spotlight.
We see right through the league’s actions, which lack consistency and appear to be made on the fly. The latest example involves the Scouting Combine, which begins Tuesday in Indianapolis.
Unlike its track record in handling public relations crises, the NFL excels at creating ways to engage fans, entice sponsors and extract dollars from both. Nothing in the history of sports and marketing compares to the combine. It began 30 years ago at the Hoosier Dome, where the windows were covered and the prospects’ results were privileged information.
Now the week-long event receives nearly non-stop TV coverage.
The NFL this year is launching the Combine Experience, allowing fans to play interactive games, compete in skills drills and participate in virtual-reality activities. Approximately 200,000 square feet of the Indiana Convention Center is dedicated to the cause, including a massive retail store and other attractions. Fans can watch prospects’ bench-press drills and observe press conferences.
All 32 NFL teams will be on hand to poke, prod and probe the 330 invited players.
But neither Oklahoma halfback Joe Mixon, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly nor Baylor receiver Ishmael Zamora will be in attendance,left off the list for off-the-field issues. Mixon punched a woman and broke her jaw; Kelly fought bouncers at a bar and threatened to “spray this place” with an AK-47; Zamora beat his dog with a belt and kicked the animal as well.
Conversely, Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook – one of the top receivers in the draft – will be present, despite twice being arrested for domestic violence complaints. Louisville defensive end Devonte Field also will be there, though he was accused of punching an ex-girlfriend and waving a gun at her.
Charges were dropped in both cases. But we know the NFL doesn’t require a criminal conviction in order to issue its own punitive measures. Commissioner Roger Goodell prides himself on being judge and jury after the fact, regardless of what a real judge and jury decides.
Last year, the NFL prohibited players from participating in the combine if they had misdemeanor or felony convictions involving violence or use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault. “It is important for us to remain strongly committed to league values as we demonstrate to our fans, future players, coaches, general managers and other who support out game that character matters,” NFL executive Troy Vincent said in a memo to NFL teams.
So let’s get this straight: Players like Mixon aren’t welcome at the combine due to past actions that run contrary to league values.
However, they’re more than welcome to suit up and play after the draft.
Not inviting certain players to the combine is supposed to be a form of punishment. Denying them access theoretically lowers their draft status, reduces their earning power and paints the league as no-nonsense tough.
In reality (as per usual), appearances are the NFL’s primary concern.
Goodell & Co. don’t want the extravaganza sullied by the negative publicity that Mixon-types attract. Their presence would invite attention to the NFL’s uneven handling of discipline and questions about the institutional culture.
It’s much better for the league when individual teams take the heat and deal with the fallout. For instance, the Kansas City Chiefs were widely criticized for making Tyreek Hill a fifth-round draft pick last year. Hill, who wasn’t invited to the 2016 combine, had pleaded guilty to a 2014 incident when he punched and choked his pregnant girlfriend.
“No doubt, the fans have every right to be mad at me,” Hill told reporters before his first minicamp practice. “I did something wrong. I let my emotions get the best of me and I shouldn’t have did it.”
Hill wowed scouts at his pro day by running the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds, which would’ve placed him second (behind halfback Chris Johnson in 2008) for the combine’s all-time fastest. The Chiefs were rewarded when Hill emerged as a dynamic playmaker; the speedster led all AFC rookies with 61 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns, while adding another 267 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. As a punt returner, he was a unanimous selection to the Associated Press All-Pro team.
Teams like the Chiefs had to make extra arrangements to see Hill and other uninvited players of interest. Instead of maximizing one-stop-shopping at the combine, teams must attend each prospect’s pro day. Economy of scale goes by the wayside.
Meanwhile, the NFL can posture as if it took a stance.
Actually, all the league does is shift the focus, letting teams take the brunt of animosity surrounding a controversial player. He’s denied the opportunity to participate in the NFL career fair but able to land a job anyway.
I’m not suggesting that Hill, Mixon et al should be banned from playing. But by withholding invites to the combine, the NFL punishes its teams more than prospects. All in the name of image.
Too bad it’s not working.
This isn’t what smart organizations have in mind when they talk about being transparent.