The NFL’s player protest PR headache is far from over.
After meeting with National Football League team owners, the organization’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, addressed reporters at a press conference. His aim was to stem backlash over players kneeling during the national anthem.
However, Goodell’s response didn’t do much to alleviate the NFL’s troubles.
Responding to a series of questions about pro football players’ protests, Goodell said that while only “about a half a dozen players” continue to kneel for the national anthem, “we’re going to continue to work to try to put that at zero.”
Goodell said that he “didn’t discuss” whether NFL teams would or would not discipline players who continued to kneel. He also said he has not spoken with President Donald Trump about the protests.
The number Goodell cited seems low, considering seven San Francisco 49ers players alone took a knee for last Sunday’s anthem, and as many as 30 49ers players were taking a knee two weeks ago. But it appeared he wanted to make it a point that it’s not as widespread of an issue as it is being made out to be.
Instead, Goodell attempted to steer the conversation to activism that viewers on both sides of the political spectrum could get behind.
“We spent today talking about the issues players are trying to bring attention to,” he said (via ESPN.com). “Issues in our communities, to make our communities better.”
Goodell sent a memo to all 32 NFL owners last week in which he also said the league believes everyone should stand for the anthem.
“It is an important moment in our game,” Goodell’s memo said. “We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”
Goodell’s language was intentionally vague, as well.
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… But amid a number of repeated words and phrases like “dialogue,” “understanding” and “underlying issues,” he certainly didn’t clarify much—though he noted that it’s time “to make sure we get back to football.”
Ultimately, the results of the NFL’s meetings with owners and Goodell’s recent statements highlight what the commissioner told reporters: “What we’re trying to do is stay out of politics.”
Deadline Hollywood reported:
One writer asked Goodell point blank: “Are you willing to put the [NFL] Shield on the line to get into some sticky political and social debates?”
“We’re not afraid of the tough conversations; that’s what we’re having with our players … to make sure we know where they’re coming from. And I think out of those discussions, they understand that the owners in the NFL really do care about their issues and what we can do to make the communities betters. I think that’s what dialogue is all about.”
Goodell’s ambiguity reflects the fact that owners disagree about punishing players who protest. Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones made headlines after saying he’d bench anyone on the team who decided to kneel for the anthem.
That discord could make for an even stickier PR crisis for the NFL.
… [N]othing good can come for the NFL if Jones repeats himself on the national anthem debate that took center stage this week. The owners seem to understand that. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell certainly knows it. So this became the prudent choice Wednesday: Jerry taking the side exit on the entire issue for now, lest he blow up the progress that his fellow billionaires feel they are achieving.
That’s where the anthem debate has seemed to have settled, without a vote on standards and practices – and most certainly without a unanimous front. Thanks in large part to Jones, who is dug in deep and still not in favor of changing how he does business.
You only needed to hear the language at the end of the meetings to understand where Jones stands now – on an island, left alone as the only team owner inclined to discipline players for any form of protest during the anthem. So much so that when New York Giants co-owner John Mara shared sweeping optimism over the meetings, he couldn’t speak without a clause in the mix. The Jerry Jones holdout clause.
Another reason for Goodell’s tepid response could have to do with ratings.
The NFL’s embattled season continues as the latest figures showed TV ratings are down 7.5% compared with the first six weeks of last season, and down 18.7% on the same period in 2015.
The situation didn’t improve for the NFL after its meetings, either. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump tweeted:
The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
What should communicators take away from the NFL’s continuing backlash over player protests?
“In a crisis situation, you need to respond boldly,” says Dean Crutchfield, founder of The Dean Crutchfield Company.
Crutchfield says Goodell faltered in his crisis response by not explaining what the protests signified:
Suggesting NFL players were protesting the flag is like saying Rosa Parks was protesting public transport. He didn’t share that insight. He needed to be clear about the players’ purpose but he took the opposing side and ganged up on the players in the face of Trump tweets and sponsor concerns. Now the situation has become litigious.
Crutchfield also says that Goodell failed by not having a crisis communications strategy from the beginning. Instead, he says the NFL should have used the “PREP approach,” which he outlines as:
- Defining the purpose of the players.
- Explaining the reason they’re protesting.
- Sharing examples of statements by players and reporters.
- Reiterating players’ purpose.
“Then make a request to stop kneeling,” Crutchfield says. “Maybe even [offer] an initiative to help the cause. That would have been powerful.”