Can This Wayne Entrepreneur Save The NFL From Itself?

It’s harder than ever to be a sports fan and socially conscious. Here’s a way to return to the days when watching a game felt wholesome.

Can This Wayne Entrepreneur Save The NFL From Itself?

It’s harder than ever to be a sports fan and socially conscious. Here’s a way to return to the days when watching a game felt wholesome.

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Last November, noting that watching a football game was increasingly feeling like rooting for big tobacco, we suggested that the NFL align itself with socially conscious values by requiring that each team go through the B Lab certification process. Wayne-based B Lab is the non-profit behind the international B Corp movement, in which the fiduciary responsibility of member companies extends beyond shareholders to include community, environment and employees. At the time, the league was reeling from star running back Ray Rice’s domestic violence. Well, as Deflategate has raged this off-season, there are other signs that the league is still in need of some social impact training. At its annual rookie symposium, former Eagles wide receiver and ESPN commentator Cris Carter offered some sage advice, telling a roomful of jocks to have a “fall guy” take the blame when they found themselves in legal trouble. Commish, we renew our advice: You really need to call B-Lab’s Jay Coen-Gilbert.]

He doesn’t look like the guy who can save Roger Goodell’s job. He looks more like an aging hipster, with his goatee and old-school sneakers. But, as Jay Coen-Gilbert, 48, sits outside Teresa’s café in Wayne, pulling on a beer, the words come fast, like the intense true believer he is: “Sports teams punch above their weight class,” he says. “You get just one to make a stand for progressivism and the impact can be enormous.”

Coen-Gilbert knows impact. His Wayne-based nonprofit B Lab has jumpstarted the international “B Corp” movement. B Lab’s insignia—the B stands for Benefit—confers a type of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval when it comes to social responsibility for over 1,000 companies, including well-known brands such as Patagonia and Revolution Foods. B Lab has created a new type of company, the B Corp, which extends members’ fiduciary responsibility beyond just shareholders, to stakeholders such as employees, the environment and the surrounding community.

Now, as the NFL tries to dodge PR storms of its own making in the Ray Rice and Adrian Petersen cases, Coen-Gilbert and I are commiserating on just how hard it is to be a sports fan with a social conscience these days—you sit down to watch a football game and it feels like you’re rooting for Big Tobacco. It’s all well and good that the NFL has named three domestic violence experts—all women—as senior advisers and that, in the aftermath of Donald Sterling’s racist comments, the NBA is being advised by Dr. Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. But don’t these moves smack of after-the-fact PR moves? I’m still waiting for the answer to the most pressing question: Moving forward, how do we find out if our sports teams—beneficiaries of antitrust exemptions and taxpayer subsidies for their palatial stadia—actually share our values?

It’s hard to be a sports fan with a social conscience. You sit down to watch an NFL game and it’s like you’re rooting for Big Tobacco.

That’s the question that drove the founding of B Lab eight years ago. “Many companies say they’re socially responsible,” says Coen-Gilbert, who was one of the founders of AND1, the groundbreaking basketball apparel company that had $250 million in sales at its peak and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005. “But how do you know if that’s just marketing? A company could be in a LEED certified building, but if they’re not paying their employees a living wage, are they really socially responsible?”

Now, in the fallout over the NFL’s recent troubles, the time has come to ask the same of our sports teams and leagues. As a result of all the bad press populating the sports pages these days, Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would punish pro sports leagues by prohibiting them from claiming tax-exempt status. Others have talked about rescinding leagues’ antitrust exemptions. Here’s a simpler idea: As a condition of ownership, require all teams to go through the B Lab process.

In the Ray Rice case, that might have meant that, upon his arrest, we’d already have known just how much of an epidemic domestic violence is in the NFL because each team would regularly have had to report all its employees’ transgressions. (There have been 56 NFL players charged with domestic violence since 2000). In the case of Donald Sterling, fans and sponsors wouldn’t have had to rely on a TMZ report to ultimately learn about housing discrimination lawsuits filed against Sterling in the past, because B Lab certification would have required full disclosure of all litigation. Or take another recent case: Had NFL teams been required to undergo B Lab certification, it wouldn’t have required an Oakland Raiders cheerleader whistleblower for us to learn that, of 26 teams that employ cheerleaders, precisely one—the Seattle Seahawks—pays its cheer squad a minimum wage in a league that generates $9 billion in revenue per year and pays its commissioner $44 million.

“B Lab doesn’t look at governance and make a determination on legality or illegality,” says Coen-Gilbert. “We lay out the facts and determine what the right thing to do is, for the company and for its stakeholders.” To date, it’s working: B Lab members were 63 percent more likely to have emerged intact and relatively unscathed from the Great Recession than other companies.

Now, in the aftermath of the recent spate of sports scandals, the narrative has turned to punishment. Punishment for Rice, Petersen, Sterling, and let’s not forget Goodell: The calls for his resignation have gotten louder and louder.

It’s not too late for Eagles’ owner Jeffrey Lurie to break the silence of NFL ownership and make clear, once and for all, what his team’s values are.

Punishment is warranted, yes, but it’s also reactive. For a league or team, the proactive stand would be to become the first to be a B Lab member. Note to Jeffrey Lurie—a political progressive whose team has led the way in greening the NFL: Becoming the first B Lab sports team would say that your team—a de facto public trust—aligns itself with the values of its fans and business communities. Yes, the real test of leadership comes now, after the crises, when the challenge is for our monopolistic sports leagues to finally be transparent with their stakeholders. It may be too late for Roger Goodell to save his job, but it’s not too late for Jeffrey Lurie to break the silence of NFL ownership and make clear, once and for all, what his team’s values are. He can do that by making one phone call to a guy in Wayne.

This originally ran on The Citizen on 11.12.14

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