The NFL’s PR Fumble(s)

Parker Anderson (Creative Commons)
Parker Anderson (Creative Commons)

Without question the NFL is the most continuously embattled sports franchise in America. From cheating scandals to murder trials to domestic violence and child abuse, the NFL seems to always have a crisis in its lap to manage. Beyond the weight of the multiple scandals is the NFL’s approach to crisis management — it is an ongoing study of contradictions.

It has been, and continues to be, painful to watch the Ray and Janay Rice saga unravel. Each layer adds a dimension to the public discourse that, seemingly, widens the chasm between the sides of the debate. You’d think there would only be one side the one denouncing the brutal violent attack on a women, but sadly there are audacious voices who’ve questioned what prompted Ray to slug his then-fiancé, as if it there is ever justification for domestic violence.

The video is what it is and show what it shows. We know there were two versions, the abbreviated version (disturbing enough) and the full version that shows the episode from beginning to end (the one that left me numb). When the NFL actually viewed the full footage is dubious, and while the League scurries to make amends, it’s their response to the Rice drama that should give pause.

While the spotlight is glaring on the NFL, Baltimore Ravens and Ray Rice, this is obviously not the NFL’s first crisis spurred by domestic violence.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence charges last July. According to public records, Hardy allegedly choked his then-girlfriend, dragged her by her hair and threw her on a sofa that was covered with several loaded assault rifles. Despite Hardy’s conviction, which he is appealing, he was never placed on indefinite suspension as Rice was. In fact, he played in the team’s 2014 season opener.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy

What’s the difference, NFL? Even though Hardy is appealing his conviction, he was convicted, and he received not even a slap on the wrist. Yet Rice, initially received a two-game suspension—the equivalent of a time-out—on the strength of the partial video footage, and now that the full footage has been exposed he’s out indefinitely. What gives? Is domestic violence only a concern when it’s captured on video, or only when the media gets hold of it?

The NFL has made several classic PR missteps in the Rice and Hardy situations: sending mixed messages, lack of transparency, not admitting its mistakes, and feigning concern only after being exposed.

Vilifying Rice and Hardy are not the right course of action, either. Plainly, both men need interventions and guidance, and deserve an opportunity to rehabilitate their behavior.

No one should be judged by their personal failings for the rest of her/his life. That’s not the issue. The broader issue is that the NFL should take a stance, an authentic stance unmotivated by public outcry, against domestic violence, implement swift action for all domestic violence offenses and sideline players until allegations are resolved in the legal system. Jumping from extremes of toddler time-outs in the form of two-game suspensions to indefinite suspensions to no suspensions at all are the wrong moves. Pick an approach—the right approach— and stick with it!

Commissioner Roger Goddell and the NFL have repeatedly fumbled opportunities to use good, strategic public relations to address the nation’s domestic violence epidemic in the raw: every day in America three women die due to domestic violence, and 25 percent of women say they have been physically abused.

This is what we need to talk about. The NFL has a chance to lead here, and not for gain of sponsor or union favor, but for the good of culture. Come on, young girls and boys are watching.

The good that has come out of these crises is that the world is talking about domestic violence. As we approach Domestic Violence Awareness Month, hopefully it will be an additive and substantive discussion.

The NFL can and should take the opportunity to correct itself by sending a stronger message against domestic violence and joining the conversation, but only if it gets its story straight.

Domestic violence is never okay, the victim’s gender does not matter. Domestic Violence Awareness Month is each October. Visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence for resources.

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