The NFL is dealing with a significant brand crisis. How is the league doing at managing it?
To evaluate the situation, I turned to Daniel Diermeier, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and until recently a colleague of mine at the Kellogg School of Management. Daniel studies how companies and brands deal with crisis situations. In his book Reputation Rules, he explained that people look for four things when evaluating organizations: expertise, transparency, empathy and commitment.
Using this framework, we can assess the NFL’s response to date.
The NFL is not doing well in the area of expertise.
The league gave Ray Rice a modest two game penalty for knocking his fiancé unconscious in an elevator and dragging her out into a hotel hallway, then, after TMZ released the video, dramatically increased the penalty. The Minnesota Vikings reinstated running back Adrian Peterson, accused of child-abuse, and then reversed course when sponsors complained. San Francisco 49ers’ Coach Jim Harbaugh continues to play Ray McDonald, who was arrested in August for assaulting his fiancé.
About the only thing everyone can agree on is NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell’s statement at his news conference on Friday, “We have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong.”
What did the NFL know about Ray Rice and when did the league know it? How precisely did the NFL decide that a two games suspension was an appropriate penalty? Why did it then change the decision? Why does San Francisco seem to have a different set of standards than others in the league? Who sets the rules in the NFL?
These are all important and unanswered questions.
Commissioner Roger Goddell said on Friday that he had not considered resigning. This simply cannot be true.
The NFL is not doing well on transparency.
Does the NFL really care about player behavior?
The league is definitely worried about viewership and money. Is it really concerned about the example it is settling for children in the country?
Did Roger Goddell deliver a heartfelt apology on Friday? No. Have any of the NFL owners taken the lead on this? No.
Is the league determined to make significant changes? On Friday, Roger Goddell said it was.
The problem is that people don’t seem to believe him. Most commentators think the NFL will simply play on and hope this all fades away.
The team owners need to step up and honestly react to the problem. They don’t need a final answer; they just need to be empathetic and transparent, and demonstrate commitment. A good first move would be asking Goddell to step down.
The crisis is having an effect on TV ratings. Ratings for the first three weeks of Monday Night Football are down by 12%.
Utilizing Professor Diermeier’s “Reputational Terrain” as a proxy, the NFL is clearly in a mass media category of high audience interest and high societal importance pertaining to domestic violence. The NFL had specific opportunities to leverage this category to empathize with the victims of these terrible situations and present the league as a hero by acting swiftly and standing firmly against this behavior. Instead, the NFL squandered that opportunity and has taken a defensive posture that clearly is causing tremendous harm to the NFL’s reputation.