How The National League of Women Voters and The National Football League Found Concinnity

Not long ago I heard a story at a board colleague’s retirement dinner that made me smile

At the retirement dinner in late 1984 the staffs of both the National League of Women Voters and the National Football League were busy going about their respective businesses. Unbeknownst to them, their worlds were about to collide.

The League was hard at work getting agreement between the campaign staffs of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan on the particulars of the fall presidential debates, something which, I understand, is about as easy as negotiating a major trade agreement. At long last the dates were settled and the staff went about the process of notifying the media. Almost immediately the president of the League of Women Voters received a phone call from a senior executive with ABC television.

As it turns out, ABC had the rights to broadcast the Sunday night NFL games that year, and the campaigns and the League had picked a time for one of the debates that conflicted with an already scheduled NFL game.

The ABC executive was in a real pickle, and he let that be known in no uncertain terms. ABC was contractually obligated to the NFL to broadcast the game; violating that contract would have cost the network millions of dollars. But broadcasting in a time slot conflicting with the presidential debates amounted to public relations suicide. He was hoping to convince the League of Women Voters to change dates.

The reality was that the league president was between her own rock and hard place: bringing the Mondale and Reagan campaigns back to the negotiating table would be no easier than renegotiating an NFL broadcasting contract.

So the president of the League of Women Voters had a better idea, much to the shock of ABC. Why not just call the NFL commissioner and talk it over? Undoubtedly a good percentage of the NFL audience wanted to watch the debates and, no doubt, there were plenty of voters who would be torn between the debates and the game, which is to say these two leaders had a number of stakeholders in common.

They needed a skillful, harmonious, and elegant way to piece together the various parts of this shared dilemma. They needed concinnity. And they got it. With the help of the commissioner, the debates were moved up a half an hour and the game was moved back. Everyone gave a little, and everybody won.