Inside Slant: An invitation to humility for NFL owners

For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.

PHOENIX -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell concluded the annual owners meetings Wednesday with a 20-minute news conference. He answered questions about most of the micro-issues facing the league, from Los Angeles relocation to the status of suspended players to updates on two internal investigations.

Left untouched, for the most part, was an acknowledgment that Goodell and the NFL's 32 teams spent three days digging at the root of their most damaging year in memory. It began Sunday night with a jarring keynote speech from New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose remarks about humility and character resonated throughout the league.

The owners meetings annually open with a guest speaker, but Brooks' tone was different than most, according to several league veterans I spoke with -- most on the condition of anonymity, given the private setting.

"Normally speakers come in and it's, 'Oh, the NFL is so great,'" said Mark Murphy, the Green Bay Packers' president/CEO. "This was, 'Well, you're doing things well in the league, but you're not really humble. So work on your humility.'"

Multiple people who were present for the speech said Brooks did not specifically reference any details of the NFL's year; he has not yet returned an email seeking further context. But after the league drew national criticism for its inattention to domestic violence and an ill-conceived scramble to address it, the message was clear.

"With what we've gone through this year, I think it resonated with everybody," Murphy said.

Brooks has taught a class at Yale on humility and is writing a book on the topic as well. In this 2014 speech posted to YouTube, which several people said was similar to what he gave Sunday night, he laid out his idea that Americans have grown too impressed with themselves, believing they are more important than they are. One passage struck me as particularly relevant.

"If you're modest in having an awareness of the limits of your own knowledge," Brooks said in the speech, "you know that you need people who disagree with you to correct for your own errors. If you think you have the truth 100 percent, then the people who disagree with you are just in the way."

Goodell referenced the topic in his Monday morning address to owners, a revelation in itself considering that reports of his tenure have suggested an increasingly insulated power structure that views itself solely in terms of enormous economic success. That assessment seemed accurate last summer when Goodell under-suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games after an incomplete investigation and via a policy constructed without the assistance of domestic-violence experts.

Did the NFL lose an awareness of its own knowledge? Did it, in Brooks' words, grow "inarticulate in morality" and fall into a policy of "whatever feels good to you must be right"? You could certainly make that argument. The people I spoke with thought the answer was self-evident based on the league's invitation to Brooks.

Of course, it's fair to wonder whether the message, even if it resonated Sunday night, will effect any change within a corporation that expects its gross revenues to grow $1 billion year over year. When you're making money hand over fist, it takes work to suppress the urge of what Brooks called "self-advancement." Is it realistic to expect the NFL to operate as if it doesn't already have all the answers?

Why should the NFL do anything differently or change its base thinking when revenues and television ratings are at an all-time high?

It sounds as though Brooks provided an answer to that. According to Murphy, Brooks challenged owners to consider "your résumé values versus your eulogy values" with, clearly, an emphasis on the latter.

"It's kind of like your legacy," Murphy said. "When you're gone, what are you going to leave?"