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The NFL Should Value Character as Much as Talent

09/26/2014 12:36 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST
Ronald Martinez via Getty Images
ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 16: Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

By Gerard Seijts

By now, most sports fans have heard that National Football League running back Ray Rice has been released by the Baltimore Ravens and been indefinitely suspended by the NFL.

Back in February, when Rice was charged with assault and a video surfaced that allegedly depicted him dragging his unconscious girlfriend (now his wife) off an elevator after a dispute, the Ravens supported its star player. Despite code-of-conduct rules introduced in 2007 after a string of player arrests for various offences, including assault, team officials described Rice's off-the-field behaviour as a couple's issue, not a management matter.

"I think we'll be rewarded by him maturing and never putting himself in a situation like that again," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in March, adding his definition of acceptable character is not repeating offences. "If we're all one strike and you're out, then we're all in trouble," he said.

Supported by his wife, Rice avoided trial by entering an intervention program for first-time offenders. Nevertheless, the NFL came under fire when it issued Rice just a two-game suspension. And the criticism increased after a second video that allegedly showed Rice knocking out his wife was published. Claiming the new clip contradicted what they were told about the incident, the Ravens and NFL then cut ties with Rice.

But not everybody thinks anyone in charge actually cares. "Just to be clear," tweeted Chris Rock, "Ray Rice was not fired for beating his wife. He was fired because a video of him beating his wife was released."

We optimistically disagree. There is a growing focus on character in professional sports because it actually matters to individual and organizational performance.

Remember Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers over racist remarks? Or Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson, who decided he must sell his interest in the team after an email implying that white fans are more valuable surfaced? Publicity played a role in these cases. But then there is Tim Leiweke, president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. He recently made headlines by noting that hiring pro athletes with off-the-charts talent makes no sense if the players in question have terrible character. As far as he is concerned, ignoring character is a good way to ensure you are "doomed" to fail. He is right, and he didn't make his comments to score points.

Character has often been described as the difference-maker in sports, business and life. It has just taken organizations a long time to start coming to terms with that conclusion. As far as the business world is concerned, you can lay some blame on educators. Indeed, as noted in Developing Leadership Character in Business Programs, an award-winning academic paper by IMD professor Daina Mazutis and Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffery Gandz, the increased disdain for business leaders in recent years stems in part from "a staggering number of so-called leaders" applying what they learned in MBA programs to damage economies, wipe out shareholders and destroy lives. The recent financial crisis and numerous accounting scandals underscore this observation.

At Ivey, we have moved to correct this problem by developing a model of character dimensions and their link to virtues, values and decision-making. And our focus on developing leadership character isn't just theoretical. For example, to help develop better leaders, we have launched new programs such as Leadership Under Fire, which in partnership with the Canadian military, stress tests business students to explore character strengths and weaknesses and see if they have what it takes to lead in an honourable way under adverse conditions. We can address character weaknesses that exist in too many leaders. But the effort must extend beyond business schools because it will take "a village" to develop the leaders we need across all segments of society to address the significant challenges of the future.

What about addressing off-the-field bad behaviour by pro athletes? First and foremost, everyone in charge of a sports organization needs to accept the fact that this is indeed a leadership issue. League officials, team owners and management should make it crystal clear that it is a privilege to play pro sports. And good character is the ticket to the game. As Jack Welch said about integrity: "If you don't have it in your bones, you shouldn't be allowed on the field." Then everyone involved should publicly commit to taking code-of-conduct transgressions far more seriously. A list of company values hanging on the office wall means absolutely nothing if they are not reflected in employee behaviour. And any disconnect demands serious corrective action.

Keep in mind that there is no time-out in life. "There is a blackboard and it'll never be erased," former ING DIRECT CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann notes in Good Leaders Learn, adding that anyone can cross the line of acceptable behaviour, but you can't ask for forgiveness when you do it as a leader. The same standard should apply to pro athletes. After all, when violence is involved, claiming everyone always deserves a second chance is just ridiculous. And simply put, ignoring bad behaviour is always bad business, at least in the long run, especially when the business in question involves role models.

True leaders understand they are "always on" and lead by example because people learn by observing what is considered important and valued by organizations and society. This includes character and all its dimensions.

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute of Leadership at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. He can be reached at gseijts@ivey.uwo.ca..

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