Op-Ed in USA Today
How NFL Can Tackle Culture Change
Co-authored with Sam Gill
September 18, 2012
As a new NFL season kicks off, we're seeing a greater emphasis on safety at all levels of organized football, all the way down to the Pop Warner League's decision to limit contact in practice.
While this has been a refreshing shift, the current approach won't achieve the "culture of sportsmanship, fairness and safety" promised by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. If the NFL wants to achieve culture change, it will take more than punishments and new rules. It will take meaningful rewards as well.
These policies have had a limited effect. Just last season, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was allowed to re-enter a game after displaying obvious concussion symptoms. And although players are now penalized at a higher rate, there's no sign that the game is growing any softer.
The problem here is cultural, and it extends from the commissioner's office all the way down to the field. Rules might prohibit dangerous conduct, but the culture of football supports it. If the NFL is really going to become a safer league, it needs to reset its culture.
And culture is all about the habits that accumulate within an organization over time. If we want to change culture, we have to change those day-to-day behaviors.
Most organizations seeking culture change mistakenly throw all their weight behind things such as communications, training and new rules. They might even dole out punishments to curb undesired actions, achieving minimal compliance at best.
But they neglect the far more powerful lever for impact: utilizing positive reinforcement to unleash voluntary effort.
The power of this positive approach is clear in our own lives. Consider frequent-flier programs or racking up points while playing a video game. Football knows how to manage rewards too. Just look at the collections of stickers on college helmets these days. All are examples of targeted positive reinforcement encouraging desired behaviors and above-and-beyond performance. The threat of reprimand, a fine or even jail doesn't inspire us to do more and be better the way these incentives do.
From this perspective, the NFL faces a challenge. Today, nearly all the positive consequences in place encourage the very behaviors Goodell wants to root out. Money, prestige, the thrill of victory and the rush of attack all belong to those who break the rules.
To truly achieve culture change, the NFL has to flip the current system of consequences. This begins through a system of positive reinforcement to activate, accelerate and sustain safe and sportsmanlike behaviors.
What might such a sportsmanship program look like? It could begin with a "reverse bounty" to reward player safety. The league could review games for instances where players put safety first, award points and then make corresponding charitable donations or offer high-profile awards. Better yet, sportsmanship points could be tallied by team to take advantage of the power of peer pressure. Coaches could be trained to spot critical safety behaviors and give real-time feedback to players.
Because attentiveness and teamwork on safety has spillover effects on performance, the ultimate reward could lie in the game itself: improved Super Bowl prospects for the safest teams.
These are small, inexpensive steps and they don't require significant rule changes. If the NFL is serious about player safety, it's time to take a look at the proven science of behavior.
Katharine Wilkinson is author of Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. Sam Gill is a political consultant and has written on the intersection of sports and society for the New York Daily News and USA TODAY. They studied together at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars.
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© Katharine K. Wilkinson