PR Response to President’s Attack on Professional Sports

October 13, 2017 10:23 am Published by

This weekend, professional sports became political as the president attacked the NFL and the players who have demonstrated during the national anthem, including demanding team owners terminate those expressing themselves through peaceful protest. Additionally, he uninvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the White House yet confirmed that the NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins plan to visit the White House this fall.

By Sunday morning, the NFL Commissioner and 16 of its teams, the NBA and Golden State Warriors, and Pittsburgh Penguins responded to the public with statements.  From a public relations perspective, it wasn’t a surprise that those being attacked provided statements to fans and media.

A media/public statement is often the first step to take to express the thoughts of an organization when addressing a controversial issue. After a statement is issued, the communications team and leadership will then determine if they need to further comment through a press conference and create messaging for potential questions in general media interviews. This allows for an adaptable yet assertive approach as the situation at hand develops.

The turmoil with the president and professional sports teams that escalated this weekend is a perfect way to demonstrate some key crisis communications practices. Let’s take at how different representatives, teams and leagues handled the situation:

In Pennsylvania, the two NFL teams took two very different approaches, the Philadelphia Eagles and their ownership linked arms during the national anthem to show their unity with some players kneeling. On the western side of the state, the Pittsburgh Steelers chose not to come out of the locker room until after the national anthem was played.

The NFL Statements: 

The first media statement was released by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that emphasized how the NFL creates a sense of unity and how the comments made showed a lack of respect for the NFL.

The message of unity conveyed by the Commissioner was taken to light by organizations like the Eagles before the team and ownership took to the field for the national anthem, and the Pittsburgh Steelers issued a similar statement of unity as the team chose to not participate in the anthem.


Shockwaves created by the president’s comments weren’t only felt by the NFL. This weekend the NBA champion Golden State Warriors were uninvited for the traditional champions visit to the White House.

NBA Statements:

In response to this the NBA Commissioner offered a statement to the media showing his disappointment.

The team also issued their own statement outlining what they will do in lieu of not going to the White House.

As this transpired the NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins accepted their invitation to the White House with a statement on September 24. Their reasoning for going forward with their visit was, like the Steelers, not trying to make it a political statement.

NHL Statement:

Statement regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins upcoming visit to the White House:

The Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House. We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships – touring the historic building and visiting briefly with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama – and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year.

Any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways. However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.

NFL Media Interviews/Press Conferences:

While the Eagles didn’t further discuss their decision, safety Malcolm Jenkins in an interview with CNN conveyed how grateful he was that management joined the team on the field before going on to share his thoughts on how the NFL unifies and gives to their communities.

“I think we have that unique ability to bring people from all races and creeds and backgrounds to the table in order to have a good time,” Jenkins said. “And while we do that, we can enjoy the game, but let’s talk about some of the things that are going on in our communities, especially in these NFL cities.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the Steelers’ captains answered questions at a press conference about the teams’ decision and what happened with Villaneuva standing-in the tunnel. They addressed how Villaneuva’s actions weren’t meant the way many on social and in the media took them. Overall, their key messages were consistent throughout the press conference of unity and trying not to make a political statement, but to focus on the game. Click on the image below to hear the interview Click on the image below to hear the interview.

NHL Media Interviews:

Although the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t host a press conference, media did ask questions of players and the coach before and after preseason games on September 24-25. It was obvious that the players and coaches were briefed on the organization’s statement as all referred to the statement and share similar key messages. In interviews by captain Sidney Crosby, Ian Cole, one of the 17 American players on the team, and Coach Mike Sullivan, also from the United States, echoed the sentiment of agreeing to visit due to having a respect for the White House and it’s an honor to be invited.  See Cole’s media interview below (start at 2:55):

As with any crisis communications, the discussion, questions, and communication messaging decisions are far from over as the story and the circumstances evolve.

THE MESSAGING CONTINUES – UPDATE (October 13):

The political sports story progressed this week as the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins visited the White House while on Sunday, Vice President Pence decided to leave the Indianapolis Colts vs. San Francisco 49ers game after players knelt during the anthem.

Here’s an updated look on the continued messaging:

NFL’s Response to Vice President’s Departure

For most of the teams across the NFL, the league unity message was evident. However, the Vice President’s departure from the Colts game, his follow-up statement, and the President’s tweets all worked to reinvigorate social media and amp up the press coverage. Unlike the week before, the NFL’s spokesperson declined comments, while the NFL Players Association issued a statement after the game.

The Colts didn’t address the issue, and continued to have players meet with police in the city to discuss community issues.

NHL Pre-White House Visit:

As the NHL season opened last week, the media asked players and coaches about the trip to the White House. From the time the statement was issued, on September 24, members of the championship team have shared a consistent message that this trip is not about politics, but respecting the institution of the Office of the President.  See below for a clip of some of the recent interviews that continued consistent messaging with interviews held two weeks ago with Coach Mike Sullivan, Captain Sidney Crosby, and Ian Cole.

“It’s a great honor for us to be invited there,” Crosby told the Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey. “I still feel like we look at it as an opportunity. We respect the office of the White House.”

NHL Messaging During and Post White House Visit:

When the Pittsburgh Penguins visited the Oval Office, and attended the White House ceremony on October 10, no politics were discussed with the President. To thwart media questions the organization issued a post visit press announcement. This statement furthered the messaging from their original September 24th statement and brought the attention back to hockey by sharing information about the next game.

After the visit, Coach Mike Sullivan answered a few media questions outside the West Wing with personal responses that aligned with his and the team’s previous messaging. To take pressure off the players, the organization made the choice to not make players available for interviews.

Beyond press decisions, the Penguins also chose to keep their social media dark before and during the White House trip. The only social content was a Facebook post with a group picture of players and simple copy about being back at the White House.

This is most likely the final communications decision the Penguins will need to make about this specific issue, but the conversation promises to continue for the NFL for the foreseeable future and the focus will turn to MLB’s 2017 World Series Champion.

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This post was written by Veronica Mikitka Reed

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