In Crisis Management, Reputation

NFL - Oct. 2014“What exactly does the NFL stand for?”

The question came from ESPN anchor and life-long football fan Hannah Storm who deplored the league’s recent abuse cases in an emotional sign-off after a shocking week in football.

The answer to that question will determine whether the NFL will truly recover from its recent crises or just continue to bob and weave until someone bigger and badder has to step in to clean up the mess. And if you think Roger Goddell’s botched this situation, wait until a bunch of politicians in Washington jump on the Outrage Stage to compete for political currency with these issues.

Here’s the deal: no organization can move through and past a crisis without making an honest attempt to change. What’s got everyone up in arms from women’s groups to sportscaster Pat O’Brien is the NFL’s lack of understanding of this point. “What they’ve done is window dressing,” O’Brien told CNN. “There have been no consequences. No punishment.” Ironically, the networks that cover the NFL – CBS, ESPN and FOX – actually did make changes, talking candidly about the league’s troubles as they opened their Sunday broadcasts. “It used to be that we were told to stay away from anything controversial,” said O’Brien of his days with “NFL Today.” He referred to the recent issue-oriented commentary by NFL broadcasters and analysts as a “sea change.”

The need to demonstrate change is only going to come when outrage translates into lost revenue for the league and its 32 billionaire team owners. Chances are the early rumblings of fans and women’s groups won’t make much difference to them, but we are seeing the leading edge of fan anger. Here’s how USA Today put it:

“With a slew of domestic violence cases permeating the NFL, some football fans are benching America’s favorite fall pastime. Even after the league enacted tougher punishments for domestic violence and three accused players sat out during games Sunday, the Twitter hashtag #BoycottNFL and calls for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s removal are running rampant…”No football for me today. Fire Goodell and I may return. #BoycottNFL @nflcommish @nfl #FireGoodell,” Scott Allen tweeted…And the women’s rights group Ultraviolet flew a banner over the New York Giants-Arizona Cardinals game Sunday, saying Goodell must go.”

Sponsors too have expressed feeble concern over the incidents, although none have pulled out yet. Disentangling your brand for a multi-million dollar deal that reaches fans with this kind of passion is tough to do. But they are doing their best to make sure their fans (especially the 45 percent of the football fan base that’s female) know they are paying attention. Marriott Hotels released a statement saying, “As a league partner, we are closely following the situation. We trust that the NFL will address the matter appropriately.” Incidentally, their competitor, Radisson Hotels, went them one better. They ended their limited sponsorship with the Minnesota Vikings after star running back Adrian Peterson was charged with reckless or negligent injury to a child. It was the first sponsor the Vikings have lost since the Peterson allegations surfaced. By the way, Radisson got some nice positive feedback on Twitter in support of its decision. In one 12-hour period, Twitter sentiment about the hotel chain was 62 percent positive and 12 percent negative. By contrast, Twitter sentiment around the Vikings ran five to one, negative versus positive, during that same period of time.

But don’t expect other sponsors to follow Radisson’s lead. FedEx and Pepsi made sure to jump in with such tepid phrasing as “…we are watching developments in this matter closely” (FedEx) and “Domestic violence is completely unacceptable. We are encouraged to see the NFL is now treating this with the seriousness it deserves” (Pepsi). Pardon the pun, but that them’s not exactly fightin’ words.

Unfortunately, until large sponsors do more than talk and start pulling out of deals there’s not going to be much incentive for change. “The canary in the cave …would be if sponsors started to withdraw or if teams started to lose revenue,” says Leigh Steinberg, who served as the basis for Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire. “…so far, I haven’t seen that happen.”

Steinberg’s got it right. Since Roger Goodell’s 32 bosses have yet to feel the backlash in their pocketbooks, there will be no change in the way the NFL responds to Boys Behaving Badly. They simply do not see the need for it. And without that change, there’s no way for the NFL to really climb out of this crisis hole. Let alone head toward recovery.

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