The start of the NFL season has been overshadowed by the never-ending Ray Rice saga and the NFL’s public relations handling of the crisis or rather the lack of crisis management it has shown. Associated Press reported that a law enforcement officer contacted the NFL and stated that the NFL had received the video of Ray Rice punching his then fiancée and now wife, Janay in April and someone at the NFL left a recorded message acknowledging the video. This is a direct contradiction of what the NFL has repeatedly stated and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during a televised interview. The NFL is maintaining it knew nothing about the video until Monday but the public does not appear to believe it (although it is hard to believe that if Goodell had seen it back then he would have dealt so leniently with Rice nor fail to realize that it would surface publicly at some point). Nor do policymakers who are calling for hearings on how professional sports deals with domestic violence.
The NFL and Rice’s former team, the Baltimore Ravens had already faced a public relations firestorm over a video showing Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of an elevator in February. The NFL merely suspended him for two games and the Ravens took no disciplinary action.
Adding to the NFL’s PR woes is the fact that Goodell appeared to leave open the possibility that Rice (whose contract was terminated by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended by the NFL indefinitely) might be able to return to playing. This is a sharp contrast with Major League Baseball banning legendary player/manager, Pete Rose from baseball for life for gambling and the NBA banning LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling from basketball for life over racial remarks.
This at a time when the NFL brand is suffering from scandals with bullying in the locker room, players driving drunk and carrying weapons, a lawsuit from concussions, and a drug and steroids policy that some consider outdated. Add to this Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones being sued this week for sexual harassment. And let’s not forget it is grappling on how to deal with the first openly gay player, Michael Sam.
The NFL brand is its luster with the Ray Rice. What needs to be done in terms of a crisis communications strategy?
- If Roger Goodell lied about when the NFL became aware of the Rice video, he must be removed as Commissioner at once along with anyone else who was aware of its existence. Goodell’s replacement under such a scenario must be someone above reproach in the public eye; empowered with a mandate to clean-up the sport like Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis did for baseball after the scandalous 1919 World Series
- Barring that revelation, Goodell, the public face of the NFL, needs to speak to the media, reiterate that the NFL had no knowledge of the tape, announce what steps are being taken to investigate the allegation (appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller to head the NFL’s investigation was a good PR move), stress the NFL’s zero tolerance for domestic abuse, and apologize for failing to address and take stronger action when the Rice scandal first began, admitting the NFL made a mistake in how the situation was first addressed.
- Ban Rice from football for life. Failing to do so will only give credence to belief that once this scandal blows over, Rice will show up playing for another team.
- Announce a special committee that includes owners, players, domestic abuse specialists, and academics to review and strengthen NFL guidelines on dealing with domestic abuse and sexual abuse in the NFL.
- Require mandatory classes on domestic violence and sensitivity training for all players and NFL personnel.
- Begin a collaboration with organizations involved in dealing with domestic violence and victims of domestic violence, and contribute financially to such organizations, as well as making players available as media spokespersons.
- Respond to Congressional inquiries with all the facts that become available and avoid trying to evade responsibility.
- Begin an outreach for female fans.
- Highlight the NFL’s involvement in communities and other feel good stories that reflect the real NFL.
- Outline a vision for the NFL’s future.
The NFL owners
- Announce their confidence and support for Goodell. Anything else would be read by the media as a sign that they were preparing to let him go and also be unfair to the Commissioner (unless it is proven he lied).
- Announce steps they are taking within their teams to discourage player misconduct and punish it when it happens.
- Reach out to fans by thanking them for their support and lowering ticket prices to increase attendance and maintain fan loyalty.
- Announce team efforts’ beyond what the NFL is doing in confronting the various issues facing professional football.
- Begin planning for a post Goodell era after the season, allowing him a graceful exit. He must ultimately be replaced because he has lost the confidence of the public and policymakers who view him either as a liar or incompetent and uncaring; and he will not be able to fully recover.
- Replace Goodell with a high profile personality considered beyond reproach such as a Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice Rudy Giuliani or even Hillary Clinton.
Finally, the Baltimore Ravens, Rice’s former team have been overlooked in this PR crisis. The team has been praised for terminating Rice’s contract. But soon, scrutiny will return to the Ravens and how the team originally addressed the situation and if personnel knew of the second video. Remember when the first video surfaced, the team took no disciplinary action at the time. Indeed, Ravens head coach, John Harbaugh said of Rice at the time “he is one heck of a guy,” and the Ravens tweeted “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” Basically the team sided with the abuser over the victim.
- Announce an independent investigation to see if anyone with the team knew about these actions earlier or may have even helped cover up some of this story early on and that appropriate punishments will be meted out to any guilty parties.
- Work with domestic abuse advocates in Baltimore in creating greater awareness of domestic violence through an active community relations program.
- Make players available as spokespersons against domestic violence.
- Require mandatory sensitivity training and education on domestic violence for all team personnel.
- Run advertisements apologizing to fans for their failure to take earlier action against Rice and restate their commitment against domestic violence.
- Make significant contributions to domestic violence organizations.
The Ray Rice situation and the ongoing PR crisis for the NFL emphasizes the need for being proactive and having a crisis communications plan ready. It is a case study not only for professional sports but businesses as well on how to deal with a crisis.