Friday, September 12, 2014

The NFL Has A Major Trust Issue Now

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Regardless of how well a company is doing from a growth or financial standpoint, a crisis situation can hit like a tropical storm:  it's not always predictable, and it can be complicated to deal with.

Unless you’re one of the few Americans who has spent the last several weeks on a desert island, you probably know that Ray Rice, a running back with the Baltimore Ravens, assaulted his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer, in an elevator at a casino in Atlantic City back in February.  In July, the NFL announced Rice’s punishment:  a two-game suspension.  Amid criticism of the leniency of that punishment, the NFL announced a new, harsher policy:  a six-game ban for violence, with longer bans for extenuating circumstances. 

On September 8, TMZ, the gossip website, released very disturbing footage of Rice—taken from inside the elevator—that showed the actual assault on Palmer.  A law enforcement official told the Associated Press that he sent the tape to an NFL executive five months ago. This revelation was swiftly followed by a host of charges and counter-charges about who knew what, when, and why.  There have been calls for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign.

As of this blog's writing, Rice has been cut by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended by the NFL.  Yet, according to Roger Goodell, speaking on CBS Evening News, “it's possible” that Rice could be reinstated by the league at some point.  I think it’s going to take a lot of strong PR strategies to be removed from his resume…and maybe it never will be.  

According to The New York Times, Goodell asked former F.B.I. Director Robert S. Mueller III to conduct an independent investigation into the league’s “pursuit and handling of evidence in the Ray Rice domestic violence incident.”  This is a very good move and may help assuage the trust-related issues— but there may also be other things the NFL can do.

As I see it, the NFL’s biggest public relations problems going forward include a lack of trust on the part of their fans—40 percent of whom are women—and penalties that don't add up to the crimes committed.  More than a dozen other players have been suspended in 2014—all for either substance abuse or using performance-enhancing drugs.  None of them received less than a four-game penalty.  

What advice would I give to the NFL in terms of rebuilding trust?  

Recognize the sea change.  Violence—including domestic violence—is in now a part of the national consciousness.  And its impact has spread from the team to the League level.  The image of the warrior athlete…the issue of concussions…domestic violence…guns in the school…they all contribute to a perfect storm of public concern. 

Master what’s already on your desk.   Perform an audit of all the teams so you know what you’re dealing with.  In addition, whatever you think you know about the problem and its pervasiveness may still be way short of the mark…and in today’s social world, every incident of violence has the potential to go viral.   

Adopt a zero tolerance approach.   Review the new domestic violence policy that Goodell announced several weeks ago to ensure that there are strict penalties for any players who bring dishonor to the sport, their teammates or the fans.  If financial penalties are imposed, the money received should be directed to educational programs for perpetrators and shelters for women and children at risk.

Appoint a “Good Citizen Czar.”  This is the office of the “enforcer” of the zero-tolerance policy.  There also should be a policy for good behavior that is communicated by the czar to the players.   Moreover, players could be identified and groomed to serve as ambassadors for good citizenship among fans…especially players who have overcome hardships in their lives and are thus powerful role models for the youth of America. 

Give players at-risk the tools they need to succeed.  Establish protocols that permit players to discretely tap resources that can help them cultivate strategies for preventing domestic violence.  These may include advisory actions, interventions, and stress management techniques.

While a cover-up has been speculated, the current crisis appears to me to be a case of gross negligence by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the football league.  The NFL was never ahead of the story.  No one ever attempted to determine whether there was a tape that would clarify the situation.  Instead, the facts took them by surprise, like the vicious punch we all saw Ray Rice throw on that video.

The NFL is a strong product and business, and I would expect that to continue; but right now, it is my observation that upper management is dealing with a public perception that they are incompetent, untrustworthy, complacent and satisfied with less than stellar ethical standards for their employees. 

The NFL needs to be ahead of the crisis, not the reverse, so that the next time stormy weather hits, they’ll have the public's trust and confidence.