A guest post by Erin Feldman
The NFL is no stranger to PR crises and controversy, but its lackluster answers to the ones it currently faces is worrisome. Fickle replies and behaviors do the brand no good; neither does a lack of response.
PR crises require answers and action. The NFL’s absence of both raises a question: just how many PR poundings can a brand take before it faces an inevitable financial hit?
Crisis One: Dosmetic Violence
When the world heard that the Ravens’ Ray Rice was to be suspended for just two games because of domestic violence, the world started a firestorm. It had a valid reason; abusing another person is not something to be punished with a slap on the wrist.
That’s what seems to have occurred with Rice despite the NFL’s commissioner’s attempts to assuage the public:
You [Ray Rice] will be expected to continue to take advantage of the counseling and other professional services you identified during our meeting. […] I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career. I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.
While the commissioner, Roger Goodell, owns the nickname “The Enforcer,” his judgments of late have cast the name and subsequently the NFL in doubt. A number of reporters pronounce his judgments erratic and not in keeping with the crimes committed as evidenced by the chart below.
In addition, he has remained silent on the Rice matter since announcing the suspension. Adolpho Birch, the NFL Senior Vice President of Labor Policy, has become the public face of the NFL, a move that has raised questions and caused more misgiving and criticism.
The silence and inaction on the part of the NFL and Goodell could prove detrimental to perceptions of the brand as well as sales; the brand claims a large female audience. It even has sought to cultivate that relationship through its “Fit for You” women’s apparel. Those women may show their displeasure by boycotting NFL products and events or ceasing to support the brand altogether.
The NFL could keep those relationships intact, but it would require Goodell and Birch to change their words and actions. Howard Bloom, a reporter for Sporting News, advises the brand to do more than change its disciplinary practices.
He says, “The fallout from the Rice decision affords the NFL a unique opportunity to right a wrong and make a statement about domestic violence.” Bloom offers some recommendations; he suggests that the NFL annually donate a percentage of its “Fit for You” sales to victims of domestic abuse, which would keep current fans happy and possibly attract new ones.
Crisis Two: The Redskins and the Browns
The Washington Redskins have been repeatedly asked to change its name but to no avail. Goodell and the NFL either have been relatively silent on the subject or have tried to put a positive spin on it. The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, has not used either tactic. His unswerving support of the Redskins name has been termed “defiant” by some sports reporters.
While the name might not be offensive to some, that doesn’t mean it’s a non-issue. James Brown, CBS newscaster, says:
If […] the name is offensive to a group of people, then do the right thing and change the name. It’s as simple as that.
I know people will engage in an argument and say, well it hasn’t been an issue all this time. Yeah, well, the civil rights issue was one where ‘that’s just the way it was’ for a long period of time, right? So that holds no basis and substance to me. Do the right thing.
The NFL’s insensitivity is problematic and pervasive; it isn’t isolated to the Washington Redskins alone. Goodell has been mysteriously silent about the Cleveland Browns’ owner, Jimmy Haslam, who faces fraud charges while the NFL has gone so far as to call Haslam a “man of integrity.”
Silence sometimes is the best and wisest course, but it is not in these two cases. An answer is needed. More than that, an honest one is needed if crises are to be averted.
Crisis Three: Concussions
The NFL is plagued with injuries, specifically head injuries, and how could it not be? It’s a violent sport in which hulks hurtle against each other. Even so, the NFL faces a potential crisis with its ongoing litigation and inconsistent implementation of new concussion protocols.
PBS’ FRONTLINE has studied the concussions in more detail only to make perturbing discoveries. Injury reports often are inaccurate because of the way they’re reported. Many athletes aren’t missing any games despite suffering a concussion.
New rules, such as moving up kickoffs by five yards and penalizing hits to the head, have had mixed results. In 2013, the number of concussions dropped, but the number is still higher than in 2010 when the rules were first introduced.
Winning a settlement might seem cause for celebration, but it’s not. The few players, current and retired, who have won say the win is “the best of several bad options.” The outcomes of those settlements often are unclear; the most recent one leaves many players wondering what exactly the NFL will cover.
To restore confidence in the brand, the NFL needs to follow through on its commitment to better concussion care. The NFL also should seek ways to care for its players and their families and, in some cases, their widows. Some of those women face large medical bills because of their husbands’ neurological conditions, many of which were caused or exacerbated by their time on the field.
PR crises can be overcome, but they have to be dealt with quickly, honestly, and openly. If they’re allowed to linger and multiply as they have with the NFL, it’s only a matter of time before they impact audience sentiment and eventually the bottom line.
What do you think?