The National Football League has a public relations and image problem.
The 2013 NFL season kicked off with the shocking Aaron Hernandez murder inquiry and arrest, easily the biggest sports story of the year. The season has been disrupted by the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying saga, including allegations of racial insults, death threats to families, and accusations of coercion involving coaches who should have been overseeing locker room culture.
Along with these is the serious, widespread, ongoing health concern of the NFL: concussions. Retired players are suffering from multiple mental diseases and afflictions resulting in premature memory loss, deterioration of motor skills, depression, and even death, sometimes by suicide.
In addition to the ghosts of NFL past, the future is now at stake. According to a recent ESPN “Outside The Lines” segment, Pop Warner Football, the largest youth football program, has seen a nearly 10 percent decline in participation over the last two years. This marks the largest decline in the system’s history. For a league that has sunk considerable time, money, and marketing into beating out baseball for the title of America’s favorite sport, losing the interest (or, worse, earning the disdain) of the next generation is a clear warning sign.
So, what gives? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league itself are beleaguered by arrests, medical issues, and other problems chipping away at the sport’s brand. Here are four suggestions for how the NFL can address these issues:
Accept blame. Until recently, it seemed as though the NFL was unwilling to acknowledge that retired NFL players were suffering from brain damage due to the myriad hits they’d taken in their careers. When Jonathan Martin abruptly left the Miami Dolphins due to alleged extreme bullying, many players and other NFL personnel were quick to point out that this was an isolated situation and that it was “part of the game.” Incognito contended it was common locker room culture.
Time and again, players get arrested for drugs, physical abuse crimes, and other legal transgressions ranging from smoking marijuana to committing murder, yet teams and the league are quick to distance themselves from these players. It’s time the NFL stopped absolving itself or ignoring the behavioral issues surrounding its sport and its players.
Address the problem(s). After accepting blame, the NFL must address its problems head on. Many of the processes that have been put in place to resolve the aforementioned issues, such as player hotlines to report bullying, are merely for show and to cover the league’s backfield when things go wrong.
Rather than be strictly reactive, it may be time for the NFL to put some measure in place to get out in front of these issues. Whether that means adding multiple staff psychologists per team, creating frequent mandatory workshops to address locker room culture, or providing continued education on ways to handle the health problems inherent to being a professional football player, additional efforts must be made to support the mental and physical health of the league’s players and staff. The league had $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012, so the resources are there.
Communicate quickly and transparently. When Aaron Hernandez was arrested for shooting and killing his friend, it took days before the NFL and the New England Patriots made a clear statement. Even worse, some early quotes didn’t mention the victim or what had happened:
“I’ve seen a lot of things over 13 years,” Tom Brady told Peter King of Sports Illustrated, “and what I have learned is that mental toughness and putting aside personal agendas for what’s in the best interest of the team matters most … I have moved on. I’m focusing on the great teammates I have who are committed to helping us win games. The only thing I care about is winning. Nothing is going to ever get in the way of that goal.”
The league must react faster and open lines of communication. Perhaps additional crisis communications training and a more upfront attitude would be more beneficial than canned, vague statements.
Lead by example. The NFL may say that it is committed to addressing the concussion problem, but its actions don’t indicate anything of the sort. The league has been rumored to be considering a longer schedule with additional games, which reduces the offseason for rest and conditioning. This season, it has scheduled Thursday games every week, again reducing the rest period for players and putting them back on the field in a violent sport with only three days’ rest, which often includes travel. Fans and players should have greater confidence that if NFL executives say they’re going to make changes for the betterment of the league and its players, they really mean it.
Until the NFL identifies and resolves the issues that have damaged its brand and sport, it will continue to lose millions in legal fees and settlements, while compromising the future of the game. Just ask Pop Warner. With luck and with new protocols, the next few years should see a shift in thinking from top leadership and a trickle-down effect that ingrains the new line of thinking in players, teams, and fans.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO/president of 5W Public Relations, one of the top 25 largest independently owned PR agencies in the US, with clients in industries spanning beauty, health & wellness, consumer, food and beverage, technology, and many others.