Wow, what a difference a week makes in the world of corporate branding.
In the last Spin Cycle, we discussed some challenges the NFL faces that could tarnish its image – including the simmering Ray Rice crisis. That was before the full version of the Rice elevator assault video surfaced. Now, Roger Goodell and the NFL looks more like a coal miner emerging from the shaft that a gleaming, multi-billion dollar branding juggernaut!
The newest video of running back Rice’s assault puts new heat on Goodell’s management and adds to what is already looking like the worst year the NFL has faced in some time on the identity front.
Yes, the NFL is a cash cow that continues to generate more than $9 billion of revenue each year – but the man at the top can’t seem to save it from crises.
The new video that surfaced last week shows that Rice quite forcefully punches his then-fiancée in the face in an elevator, knocking her out cold. Previously, only footage of Rice dragging her unconscious body from an elevator had been released, and based on that footage, the NFL suspended Rice for two games. To many, that suspension, at the time, looked lenient; now it looks inexcusable. The slap on the wrist was so criticized that Goodell had to issue a new league policy on domestic abuse: six-game suspension for a first offense, indefinite ban for the next one.
Goodell became commissioner of the NFL in 2006, succeeding Paul Tagliabue. He takes home more than $44 million a year, is extremely image-conscious, and, he constantly instructs colleagues to “protect the shield,” the NFL’s logo. But he has been criticized time and again for management decisions, even as the organization he leads has emerged as America’s true pastime and most profitable game. In the Rice situation and in other recent crises, he has been accused of not acting quickly enough, or not being severe enough.
The Rice PR nightmare is absolutely not protecting the shield; rather it is severely tarnishing it. After the latest tape emerged, the Ravens promptly cut Rice from the roster; Goodell, minutes later, indefinitely suspended him from the league. Mark The Spin Cycle’s words: this action will not put this disaster to rest. The more pressing question here, and one not being ignored by the media or by fans, is whether the league, and Goodell specifically, had seen the footage of the punch. In it’s initial response, the NFL said no one at the league had seen that part of the footage when Goodell made his two-game suspension decision. Police say they turned the video over to the NFL office in April. Something stinks in the state of the NFL. Now, the entire matter is under special investigation by former FBI director Robert Meuller.
While the league’s public relations machine under Goodell has successfully blunted questions about brain injuries suffered by players, the fallout from a murder-suicide and the lockout of referees, questions about the handling of the Rice catastrophe and domestic violence have only grown.
That sparked a #FireGoodell hashtag on Twitter amid calls for the commissioner’s resignation.
Image Problem? Try Honesty, Responsibility, Ownership and Remedy
Image experts see two major problems the NFL needs to fix: the original Rice situation, from the initial two-game suspension to the indefinite suspension after the video’s release, and the perception of a cover-up.
If the NFL is to get its image back into the red zone, speed and honesty are key. There is an opportunity to change the narrative, but it won’t be easy.
To start, the NFL should call an audible for a highly publicized campaign against domestic abuse that includes sensitivity training for all players to combat what is spiraling into a serious image problem.
First, Goodell should take personal responsibility, put aside blame and fault-finding for the moment, pledge to find out what really happened – and make it all public, no matter the reflection on the league.
Beyond that, the NFL needs to establish an ongoing process – perhaps a task force and counseling programs to start – to address domestic violence by players. This week they took a step in the right direction by hiring three domestic violence experts to serve as senior advisors.
Other cases of domestic violence by NFL players – including the arrests of Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy this year – make addressing the situation more complex than simply dealing with Rice’s altercation.
Evidence, Ravens & Reputation Oh My
The evidence is piling up. In late July, Sports Illustrated NFL writer Peter King wrote that NFL officials, and the Ravens, too, had indeed seen, “the other videotape … from the security camera inside the elevator at the time of the physical altercation between Rice and his fiancée.” Eventually, we will get to the bottom of this Videogate. Currently, the truth remains unclear. Is the NFL being honest in its timeline of events?
The Ravens organization is also under fire now. The franchise has been criticized already for its lionizing of former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who narrowly avoided conviction after being charged with murder in 2000 (the next year, he was Super Bowl MVP).
If it’s revealed that Goodell had indeed seen the most recent footage, and still chosen a mere two-game suspension, it could very well cost him the commissioner job, and further soil the shield.
Rice is only one player, but he represents the much larger problem the league faces with criminal conduct by too many of its players. This situation is not at all fully resolved by Rice being cut from the Ravens and suspended from the league. And there are many more still-unresolved entries on the laundry list of PR nightmares Goodell has dealt with in his tenure.
Tarnished, Corroded Mic | Ray Rice, Roger Goodell & The NFL
First, Ray Rice did the despicable by hitting his then fiancée, now wife, and there’s the video to prove it. Then, there’s the way Roger Goodell and the NFL has handled the entire incendiary situation. Goodell, who has always strived to take the moral high ground, is looking more like Tricky Dick Nixon all the time, the former president who covered-up crimes.
Goodell likes to present himself as a law-and-order sheriff bent on integrity, whose motto is: “Protect the shield.” But that doesn’t seem to include protecting the victims of violence, the concussion issue and a continual barrage of disciplinary missteps for off-the-field behavior. The commissioner, who has been a sanctimonious judge for eight years, seems to have gone lenient. And what did he think was going on in the Rice video? He was dragging out an unconscious woman like a pre-historic cave man. Goodell’s credibility took another hit when it was revealed that the player had admitted that he hit his girlfriend during a disciplinary meeting in June. This makes sense since Goodell is known for being intolerant of lies, and since Rice probably assumed the commissioner had seen the video. Yet Goodell only suspended him for two games, two less than if he’d been caught taking Adderall. One of the league’s best running backs, Adrian Peterson, was indicted on charges of abusing his 4-year-old son in Texas – Goodell apparently looked the other way. For all these actions, Rice, Goodell and the NFL have the moral – and image – compass stuck in the wrong direction, and have grabbed a tarnished, corroded, short-circuited mic!
Each week, The Spin Cycle will bestow a Golden Mic Award to the person, group or company in the court of public opinion that best exemplifies the tenets of solid PR, marketing and advertising – and those who don’t. Stay tuned – and step-up to the mic! And remember … Amplify Your Brand!
Todd Smith is president and chief communications officer of Deane, Smith & Partners, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm — based in Nashville, Tenn. — is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at email@example.com, and follow him @spinsurgeon.