What Five-Year-Olds Can Teach Goodell, Rice and the NFL

To love a team is to court pain.

On Jan. 28, 1986, when coach Mike Ditka led the Chicago Bears to a 45-10 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, I was pain-free for the first time ever. Chicago teams hadn’t won anything for years. A greater happiness could never come, so I took a rash step: I quit fandom and haven’t paid any attention to the National Football League since.

Recently the NFL has become unavoidable and the league’s public profile has become, as we like to say on the Sustainability Desk, unsustainable.

We have a 208-pound running back knocking his fiancee unconscious in a Las Vegas casino’s elevator on Valentine’s Day, and an NFL Commissioner beating back calls to resign.

We have 5,000 football players suing the NFL for not informing them of the links between repeated head trauma and long-term brain injuries.

And we have a decades-old conversation about whether the franchise in the U.S. national capital should be known as what the Washington Post editorial board recently called a “slur” that is out of sync with “thoughtful opinion and common decency.”

There’s a larger point to be made here about decision-making at the top of organizations and the behavior of rank-and-file employees, even if they’re $35-million-dollar running backs: Reputation isn’t confined to community programs and green initiatives. Everybody has to take part, which is why sustainability has become a kind of state religion for companies; it’s a way to get tens of thousands of far-flung employees to focus on shared goals and standards of conduct.

Many companies still cultivate reputational crown jewels with hopes that they'll reflect light elsewhere. The NFL, which is a nonprofit, has had “a comprehensive, award-winning Super Bowl environmental program for over 15 years,” according to its website.

Reasonable people can be bored silly by tinny, self-congratulatory corporate announcements about reusable Super Bowl decorative materials. But there’s evidence that pulling environmental and social levers to burnish the brand works to some extent. There’s a “halo effect” that comes from corporate social responsibility (CSR) work. Earlier this month, for example, two Princeton economists studied the relationship between CSR work and prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. CSR-heavy companies paid 44 percent less than the average fine for bribery committed abroad.

The Super Bowl recycling program, and the NFL’s many other positive initiatives, turns out not to provide a halo large enough for the NFL’s compounding challenges (It's different in Baltimore: Nothing has a greater halo effect than a Super Bowl win). But the league apparently needed to do a more thorough job watching everyone who is watching it, and adjusting its behavior accordingly.

Five-year-olds have better reputation management skills.

Everything you ever needed to know about about responsibility, or sustainability, can be found in an October 2012 peer-reviewed evolutionary anthropology paper published in the journal PlosOne, titled “Five-Year Olds, but Not Chimpanzees, Attempt to Manage Their Reputations.”

The study reports that in an experimental setting, five-year-olds “share more and steal less when they are being watched by a peer than when they are alone.” Chimpanzees behave the same no matter who’s around.

People know they are being judged and, if they're sane, adjust their behavior so that they are judged well. And just pretending to behave well doesn’t cut it. People hate cheaters, possibly more than anything else.

The NFL would appear to need a better accounting of who the other kids are in the room, because a lot of them are upset. An NFL spokesman could not be reached by email or phone.

Biologist and prolific author E.O. Wilson wrote a pair of columns this week for Bloomberg View about human nature (and, less relevant here but nonetheless intriguing, ant nature). He concludes that “We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious and ideological struggles.”

Team sports are a way of life. I like most of them. I quit football out of joy not anger. But this week I get the sense that many others are questioning their tribal affiliations out of anger.

Make field goals, not war.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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