The National Football League has fumbled badly in its handling of the recent Ray Rice domestic violence case, causing it to snowball into an utter PR disaster. For a corporation that has preached ethics and accountability with its much touted “personal conduct policy,” the NFL’s response to the Ray Rice PR crisis and other domestic violence cases has been ad hoc, shining a spotlight on the organization’s inconsistent approach on the issue.
The basic rules of crisis management are to share what you knew, when you knew it, and what you are doing to fix it. Most importantly, be consistent and never underestimate your audience. The NFL has unilaterally failed to abide by these basic rules, making it a case study in how not to handle a crisis.
Providing a timely and through response has been an issue from the beginning. Back in February, video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice dragging his then-fiancé out of an elevator. Fans were shocked. It looks weeks for them to conduct an investigation, which resulted in a measly two game suspension. Fans were appalled, forcing the NFL to enact a stricter policy toward domestic violence.
While the NFL breathed a sigh of relief, TMZ released new video, this time of Ray Rice playing KO with his fiancés face. Within in hours, Ray Rice gets suspended indefinitely. Then the AP reports that the NFL had access to the video months ago, when Ray Rice confessed to Goodell that he knocked her out. While Mr. Goodell swore publicly that swift action was taken as soon as they saw the full contents of the videotape, the response seems a little hard to swallow. The NFL – a $10B corporation that makes it their business to know about every recruit; that has strong armed networks into ridiculously one sided deals; that quashed a documentary on concussions; that had a video of Ray Rice dragging his betrothed out of an elevator and a verbal confession – didn’t know exactly what was on the tape? Sounds more like willful ignorance to me.
Had league officials thoroughly investigated – and been forthcoming – about the incident in the first place, the new video would not have swept the headlines. Instead, the NFL underestimated its audience, appearing to mete out justice only when embarrassing video evidence forced them to.
The recent spate of inconsistent punishments for other domestic violence issues has only fueled the fire. Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend, played in the season opener, but was later deactivated. Adrian Peterson was allowed to play after being indicted on child abuse charges, while 49ers lineman Ray McDonald has continued to play after arrested and released for domestic violence accusations.
As the League gets ready to wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness month, the messages the NFL is sending to women and families are unclear. While the NFL plays catch up, Goodell and the League must ultimately codify what actions lead to what punishments. They must also be more transparent in their investigations, proving they are willing to take serious and consistent action against players who commit criminal offenses. Budweiser, one of the league’s major sponsors, has already expressed their dissatisfaction with the NFL’s handling of domestic violence issues. If others follow, the NFL will be forced to make changes or get hit where it hurts – at the bottom line.
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This post was written by Rebecca Devine