TAMPA — The negative headlines coming out of the National Football League are symbolic of the times we live in, a top league executive said Wednesday night during a visit to the University of South Florida.
Players kneeling in protest of racial inequality during the national anthem. Domestic violence. Concussions that may affect players' future health. These are some of the issues Tod Leiweke now tackles after leaving a key executive position with the Tampa Bay Lightning last year for NFL headquarters in New York.
"Society is going through some challenges right now and it's incumbent upon our leaders to get to the root cause of these challenges," said Leiweke, chief operating officer of the NFL and former chief executive of Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment, the umbrella for the Lightning and Amalie Arena. "There are inequities in our society, and we need to fix those things."
The NFL is doing its part, Leiweke insisted.
League boss Roger Goodell earlier this year hired B. Todd Jones, 57, formerly director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a former federal prosecutor, as new chief disciplinary officer. That takes the pressure off Goodell to have to discipline players; the commissioner has been criticized for his handling of cases of players implicated in violence against women and children.
The league and NFL owners are dedicating $100 million toward concussion research, he noted. "I think the game is going to be safer in 2020 than it's ever been," Leiweke said. "I think we've made a lot of progress in changing the narrative, changing the culture among players."
And while some fans have howled over players protesting during the national anthem, Leiweke said the league is handling the situation properly.
"It's a difficult issue," he said. "A lot of people don't agree. But at the end of the day, that's what makes our country great — the ability to express ourselves."
Leiweke spoke at the University of South Florida Sun Dome as part of the school's Sport and Entertainment Management MBA lecture series. The talk was moderated by Abe Madkour, editor of SportsBusiness Journal. Also speaking was Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer.
Leiweke had served as chief executive of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team and also was an executive with the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team and the Seattle Sounders soccer team. He was tapped by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik in June 2010 to run the day-to-day operations of the franchise and arena.
He also led Strategic Property Partners, a real estate partnership between Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment.
Lauding the NFL's groundbreaking revenue-sharing agreements of the 1960s and the league's keeping game broadcasts on free, over-the-air television, Leiweke said the brand has strengthened and will remain strong well into the future.
"It can bind a nation," he said of professional team sports. "I think if you really look at stadiums or arenas, you see all walks of life. If you price it right, you'll see people of different economic spectrums, people of different political persuasions. They're all coming together to celebrate, and I think that's really important for this country.
"This political cycle we've been in only underscores the need," he said. "We have so much more in common than what divides us, and I think teams underscore that."