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How Business Is Regulating Good Behavior in the NFL


Capitalism is often attacked on moral grounds -- that somehow profit-making enterprises lose a sense of right and wrong.

But capitalism has taken center stage in the controversies surrounding the NFL. And it is a force for positive change. In fact, one wonders whether, without corporate prodding of the league and its teams, any changes in behavior or sanctions for its players would happen at all.

You would think the issue of abuse would be simple. It seems there should be no debate that punching your girlfriend in the face, as Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens did, or brutalizing your 4-year-old son with a stick, as the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson did, are examples of bad behaviors, antithetical to society. One should not hit another person. Ever. 

But the reaction was more complex. There were discussions that Ray Rice should be given a pass because the victim forgave him and is now his wife. There were cultural, racial and regional defenses made for Peterson. That caused enough gray area for the league to hide behind. It was enough for the Vikings to actually let Peterson suit up and be eligible to play. 

But then the cavalry showed up to rescue sanity, and riding the lead Clydesdale was Anheuser-Busch. "We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season," the company, among the NFL's biggest sources of money, said in a statement. "We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league."

Related: Preaching the Morality of Capitalism

It is about as strongly worded a statement a corporation can give. It doesn't even veil the threat that Budweiser -- in the middle of a $1.2 billion ad buy -- could pull its sponsorship. It demands change. It shames, even.

Before the statement, the league and the teams involved were fumbling the response, sending mixed messages by largely giving the behavior a stern talking-to. Ray Rice punching out a woman in an elevator never seemed that bad to league officials until a video surfaced.

But the threat of losing corporate money suddenly brought the league, players and teams to church. The Vikings didn't move to suspend Adrian Peterson until an outcry fueled not by politicians, not by fans, but by sponsors. Nike stores reportedly took Peterson apparel off the shelves. Radisson Hotels suspended its partnership with the Vikings. Drug maker Mylan fired Peterson as a pitchman.

When money started talking, the balking stopped. The Vikings deactivated Peterson overnight. No one should doubt that any player now found hitting someone off the field, whether girlfriend, spouse or defenseless child, will be barred from his livelihood and community.

That is how it should be. But such an attitude wasn't obvious to the players, the teams or the NFL. Businesses have known this all along, though. Domestic abuse disqualifies you from holding positions of leadership at companies. Just ask Gurbaksh Chahal, who was fired by the board of RadiumOne -- where he was the biggest shareholder, to boot -- after pleading guilty to charges he hit a girlfriend. The sponsors now prodding the NFL into more aggressive action are probably confused that they even have to. No one wants a child beater on a corporate team. Why would anyone consider keeping one on a football team?

Related: The Myth of the Have-Nots

The deeper issue is that the free market is once again proving itself as an effective regulator. It has never been good business to engage in bad behavior -- personal, corporate or otherwise. Customers judge you, as a leader and as an enterprise, by how you comport yourself in the marketplace. An executive who beats his wife loses his job. Period. A good company wants the best people representing it. The legal system may have loopholes where an executive charged with 45 felony counts, as Chahal was, could find a way to plead guilty to just two misdemeanors and avoid jail time, but the marketplace could never accept a domestic abuser as a business partner.

Companies, in fact, fire people for much less. As controversy raged in the NFL over whether a person who bruised and battered his own son should be able to play a game for a living, Wal-Mart fired its chief spokesman because he lied on his resume about getting a college diploma.

None of this means that there isn't room for forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, penance and a fresh start. The U.S. is, after all, a nation of second chances, where people can take the worst parts of themselves, reform them and actually make a big deal out of how they turned around their lives and careers. As Americans, we actually root for redemption in others (after we are sufficiently done cheering on their downfall). No doubt that will happen with the NFL players.

Rest assured, business will be watching now. The threat of keeping sponsorship money on the sidelines will surely regulate the behavior on the field. Better yet, it might stop people from hitting someone they shouldn't. If that happens, and a life is saved or a bruise is spared, you can thank the markets and business for that.

Related: What Nannies Teach Us About Smart Regulation

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