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The NFL’s Treatment of Domestic Abuse: Three PR Failures and One PR Success

The National Football League’s treatment of American football star Ray Rice in light of his domestic abuse case continues to blemish the league’s reputation. Their light treatment of the Baltimore Raven running back and the egregious domestic abuse revealed on a video posted by gossip site TMZ brought this issue prominently into the public consciousness and debate.

On the one hand, there isn’t an easily resolvable conclusion to this. “Policies” and “suspensions” aside, sport stars are in the public eye and are subject to public scrutiny. A governing body such as the NFL that seeks to regulate player conduct is always going to have to answer to public perception of whether their punishment fits the transgression. I can’t write with any authority on how to resolve that, and frankly wouldn’t want to.

What I do want to tackle is how three businesses completely mangled their crisis management in this timeframe, and how one business pulled off a bit of a PR coup by appropriately reacting to the story.

What People (Still) Want To Hear

Before I get talk about the reaction, I want to touch on what the public wanted to hear. Specifically, why was “I’m sorry” (the response from the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens) not an satisfactory reaction to people’s outrage?

Although many high profile women’s groups and child advocacy groups have spoken about these scandals (Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges during this timeframe), I think it’s wrong to identify this as an issue specific to those communities. In the context of same-sex marriage or general assault, the same issues would be present.

The issue for most people is why these organizations chose to prioritize their business interests ahead of the victim’s interests.

In ESPN’s revealing “Outside the Lines” piece, they detail that the NFL and Baltimore Ravens understood the details of Mr. Rice’s domestic abuse very soon after it happened. The NFL and Ravens intervened for leniency with the authorities, the Ravens intervened with the NFL for a diminished punishment. Neither the NFL or Ravens made any effort to investigate the charges any further than they already understood them.

Rice was initially suspended for two games, until the video showing him punching his fiancee unconscious was made publicly available. Only then was harsher punishment imposed: Rice was suspended indefinitely from the NFL, and was released from his team.

Here’s how four businesses reacted to these events:

The NFL Commissioner speaks at a press conference, says nothing



On September 19th, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at a press conference to discuss his role in the Rice incident and the changes that he intends to make as a result. So, how did he answer the question of why the NFL put its business interests ahead of the victim’s interests?

He talked around it. Straight spin, with little acknowledgement of the greater concern. Some excerpts:

“I said this before, back on August 28th, and I say it again now – I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. I am sorry for that. I got it wrong on a number of levels – from the process that I led to the decision that I reached.”

“The entire NFL (will) receive comprehensive information on resources and support systems for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. We will reexamine, enhance and improve all of our current programs – and then we’ll do more. Earlier today, each NFL club and all of our league office locations received information about advocacy and support organizations in their communities.”

It turns out that the messaging of the press conference may have been concocted by a political strategist. Which makes sense with the aptitude for spin that Goodell showed.

Goodell’s press conference was similar to the Bill Clinton deposition where he debates the meaning of the word “is.” It was completely unsatisfying to most people who saw it because it was an empty apology and didn’t even acknowledge the public question of why the NFL put its business interests ahead of the victim’s interests.


The Owner of the Baltimore Ravens speaks at a press conference, says too much


My interest in the PR aspect of this event stems from a press conference that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to rebut some of the assertions from ESPN’s Outside the Lines piece. It was the opposite of the Goodell presser in tone, Bisciotti spoke off-the-cuff for the good part of 45 minutes. Yet, it was even more depressing than Goodell’s press conference in that he didn’t show any awareness of the public’s concern that he put his financial interest above the victim’s interest. He justified offering Rice a subsequent job after firing him, with the explanation that he would be paying him less money and with elaboration of his text that Rice couldn’t have possibly understood from the text messages. Some excerpts from his press conference:

“I can’t please those people that think we didn’t do enough.” “I feel regretful because in my heart of hearts, if we had gotten the tape early on in the spring, and Roger [Goodell] had seen it, then I think that it would have been a precedent-setting, multi-game, maybe eight-game suspension, or maybe indefinite.” “That’s the big fail. If we had gotten the video, if we had thought of that. But no, I wasn’t curious to see the video…”

Bisciotti’s press conference was similar to Jack Nicholson’s culminating scene in “A Few Good Men.” Both men spoke in a stream of consciousness finally admitting that their values are incongruent with others.


The curious case of ESPN


So while both the NFL and Ravens responded with an extraordinary lack of understanding and willingness to admit their actual failure, ESPN was lauded both for their “Outside the Lines” piece and for their willingness to critique the league acting. They initially were seen as an honest broker during this debacle despite having huge financial interest in the NFL’s success. And then they suspended Bill Simmons and changed the narrative.

Bill Simmons is one of ESPN’s most popular columnists and personalities, reportedly making more than $3 million in salary annually from the network. He also has been one of the most prominent NFL critics on the network. Last week, he was suspended by ESPN for three weeks for calling Roger Goodell a liar (and for saying a couple of curse words for which there was past-precedent).

I suspect (as many people have written) that Simmons was suspended for insubordinating his editorial guidelines and not for his specific words towards Goodell, but by suspending Simmons ESPN made themselves part of the NFL domestic violence narrative. Because when Bill Simmons called Roger Goodell a “liar” he was echoing the sentiment shared by many people, and he became a martyr for their cause.

For all of the good journalism that they published during this period about the NFL and its treatment of domestic violence, the prevailing narrative now is that ESPN is a shill for the NFL for suspending a reporter that criticized them.



Free PR, Good PR, and Beer


“We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.” – Anheuser-Busch

It’s probably hard to say that a company that spends $200 million annually sponsoring the NFL is getting “free” PR, but when the NFL’s domestic abuse cases became prominent in the public consciousness, Anheuser-Busch released a statement of support for reform that earned hundreds of media impressions (such as the Daily Show video embedded below).

The likelihood that they would reduce their spend because of this is probably low, but their willingness to come out publicly has been received quite positively (presumably with very little cost).

What I wanted to do in this piece was to show how various PR responses to this high-interest story (domestic violence in the NFL) have shaped the perception of the players involved. The NFL and Ravens are perceived to be firmly ensconced somewhere between dishonest and apathetic, ESPN is perceived to be a sycophant to their business partners, while Bill Simmons and Anheuser-Busch are perceived positively by understanding and articulating (to various degrees) the public’s viewpoint.

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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