Bullying, concussions, player arrests, declining youth participation. The NFL has a serious PR problem. Neil Cohen offers the league some advice about how to fix it.
Somewhere at a dinner table in a mid-sized city in the United States, there’s a 15-year old high school freshman phenom who can hit a baseball a country mile, hit 90-mph on a radar gun, run the 4.3 40-yard dash and throw a perfect spiral for what seems like the entire football field. He’s already 6’1 and 200 pounds and hasn’t even started to fill out. He’s sitting with his parents and maybe a coach or two deciding if he should focus on one sport to increase his chances of becoming a pro. He’s already being compared to Bo Jackson or John Elway. . . or perhaps 2013 Heisman Award winner Jameis Winston, who scouts project could be a first-round pick in either baseball or football. What sport will the freshman superstar choose?
The NFL sure hopes the freshman has not heard President Obama’s recent comments to The New Yorker that he would not let his son play pro football, comparing the sport to boxing and people who play it to smokers since both groups know the inherent risks of the activity. Now, to be fair this is a hypothetical since the President has two girls, but ouch.
Despite being the most lucrative sports league in the world with total revenues that exceed $9 billion and where even the lowly Cleveland Browns recently sold for almost $1 billion, the NFL has a problem. It’s a long-term problem, it’s real, and it’s been exacerbated by the NFL’s public relations efforts, or lack thereof.
You may be thinking that this worry is overblown given that you watch football three times a week, update your fantasy line-ups all the time and intend to watch the Super Bowl this weekend with 100 of your closest friends. And one could make that argument if not for the NFL’s long-term goal of growing the league’s revenues to a whopping $25 billion by 2027.
To get to that number, Commissioner Roger Goodell needs his entire organization to be firing on all cylinders. He needs more than the diehards to engage with his sport, he needs everyone to pay attention and spend their money. To start, he needs to repair the NFL’s image and public relations efforts.
To be fair, Goodell “runs” a very complex organization, with 32 teams that are themselves their own companies. They have owners and CEOs, usually with huge egos (see: Dan Snyder; Jerry Jones), hundreds of employees—the most important of which are unionized—and their own corporate cultures.
Much like the way Apple or any global company cannot control the daily actions of an employee in one of its stores, the NFL cannot control its entire employee base. Each NFL team has young, wealthy players, many of whom have been treated like they were special since they ran onto their high school field for the first time. Unlike an Apple employee, however, an NFL player’s actions are closely watched, and even a slight misstep can lead to a national story (see Richard Sherman).
As a PR executive for the past 20 years (though not in the sports world), I can sympathize with the communications executives at the NFL trying to foster a positive image for the league, while navigating huge egos, likely power struggles and poor decision-making in a world in which it’s next to impossible to keep up with one’s twitter feed.
With the media always looking to knock down the top dog, an organization that wants to maintain a good image has to be perfect and, when it does make mistakes, straightforward.
The NFL is far from perfect. It’s coming off a pretty terrible year, distinguished by murder charges for former All-Pro Aaron Hernandez, the League of Denial fiasco, and former players making their CTE concerns public, a significant decline in youth football participation, Richie Incognito, bullying and alleged racism, the Redskins refusal to change their name and at least 50 player arrests.
The NFL can’t even catch a break in what should have been a celebration of Peyton Manning and his return to the Super Bowl after major neck surgery. Instead, the story was overshadowed by a multi-weeklong media dissection of Richard Sherman’s rant—overblown as it was—with stories about race and thuggery for a Stanford graduate who may talk trash on the field but has never had any off-the-field issues.
So, given all that’s gone wrong, let’s take a look at five things the NFL can do to start fixing its public relations problems:
1) The NFL needs to tell its story.
One of the first things one learns in public relations is that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will do it for you. Time and time again, the NFL remains on the sidelines or does not speak with enough conviction about what it is and what it’s trying to be. Everyone else but the NFL is defining what it is—an incredibly violent sport where players get hurt and are not supported by the league.
The league should be open about the risks of playing football, what’s it’s doing to innovate around player safety, the opportunities football provides and how, when played right by some of the best athletes in the world, it’s an incredible sport to follow. It can’t be just words; the NFL actually has to do what it says it’s going to do.
2) Be transparent about concussions and the risks of playing football.
It’s been well chronicled here and by many others that how the NFL has been handling concussions and CTE from a PR perspective has been a disaster. This can’t be fixed with just PR, however; the NFL has to put programs in place that truly take care of its players from the minute they step on the field for the first time until well into retirement. Do that and its PR people won’t have to hide every time they get a call from the media.
There’s likely little risk—with the settlement with former players already likely to cost well over $1 billion—to do a mea culpa on what the NFL knew about concussions and when. The public can be quite forgiving when they know they are hearing the truth and when people or organizations are sincere in admitting mistakes.
Use baseball as an example. Tell the truth and you repair your image like PED users Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte; continue to deny something about which any reasonable person already knows the truth and you become Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. If the NFL can attempt to put the past behind it, they might be able to start rebuilding credibility on this issue. After all, one could either look at the 152 concussions that occurred during the 2013 season as evidence that the NFL isn’t doing enough, or one could see that as a more than 10% improvement over 2012.
3) Be on top of the issues.
Words like thug, bully, racist and the n-word are being thrown around far too much with regards to the NFL. With today’s short media and twitter cycles, stories don’t need to be in the news beyond 24 hours (maybe a little longer if the story has legs or has true cultural significance like Justin Bieber).
There are many examples, but it’s not in the NFL’s best interest for Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin to be top news for weeks or months at a time. Do a search for “NFL statement on Richie Incognito” and you won’t find anything. There will be statements from the investigator, player’s union, Dolphins and the players themselves, but nothing from the NFL about its expectations of players in the locker room or its position on bullying or use of inappropriate language. Perhaps the NFL intended Shannon Sharpe to do the talking for them since he seems to understand the real crux of the issue.
4) Have your alumni (ex-players) as ambassadors.
Most PR people will tell you that the best ambassadors for your organization are your current and past employees. They’ve “worked” at your company so they know what really goes on and have benefitted the most from the opportunity.
The NFL has given so many young men the chance for exceptional lives and in some cases to become legends in their community or city. These people should be your champions.
It’s too late for the NFL to make amends for many former players, but start now by supporting them and giving them opportunities to live their lives as best they can. And for the love of God stop hiding from them information they need to make decisions about their careers. Do that or we can all continue to wake up every day to see stories about Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett and CTE or Dwight Harrison and the NFL taking away his pension or former running back Jahvid Best suing the NFL and helmet maker Riddell.
5) Look long-term at your game.
The NFL’s biggest problem is staring it in the face: a major decline in kids playing youth football.
According to ESPN, between 2010-2012, participation in Pop Warner decreased by more than 23,000 kids. The organization’s chief medical officer highlighted fear of concussions as the primary cause, saying, “Unless we deal with these truths, we’re not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport.”
Pop Warner officials also said kids specializing in one sport caused part of the decline. That’s right…kids are choosing a single sport to play, AND ITS NOT FOOTBALL.
And controversy surrounding the NFL’s support of its Heads Up youth program promoting proper tackling hasn’t helped either. Just a quick read of this ESPN “Outside the Lines” story and you get a snapshot of all that is wrong with how the NFL communicates. Instead of being upfront and proud of a program aimed at helping kids and improving player safety, the NFL dodges, ducks and distances itself from a program that it so obviously has control over. That’s not a winning strategy.
Despite the NFL’s challenging year, the league still has so much going for it. Older players like Manning and Tom Brady are still playing at the top of their game with grace and class. Younger players like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are beginning to show what the future could look like. Huge TV contracts and fantasy leagues mean billions of dollars flowing into the league’s coffers.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, the NFL’s biggest problem may be arrogance; the belief that it will always be top dog and nothing can touch it. But the history of the world is full of species, civilizations and companies that shared the same type of arrogance and didn’t adapt to change.
Just ask Kodak.
Photo: Harry Cabluck/ASSOCIATED PRESS