Activists Photoshopped this image of a COVERGIRL ad to pressure the league
The controversies around the NFL seem to be reaching a crescendo and bringing the brand to a tipping point. Marred by scandal after scandal – first Ray Rice of the Ravens knocking his fiancée (now wife) unconscious in an elevator, then the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson beating his four-year-old with a switch. Add the 49ers’ Ray McDonald – his pregnant fiancée sustained “visible injuries” – as well as the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy and the Arizona Cardinals’ Jonathan Dwyer’s domestic violence cases to the mix, and it’s officially a disaster of epic proportions. Though the story ignited around the Ray Rice video, it has mushroomed with seemingly endless new angles – some surfacing on their own – and some of the NFL’s own creation (see Rihanna debacle).
The discussion in our office has centered on two things. As communications and marketing professionals we’re talking about the decision-making behind the NFL’s public statements, what this series of events and reactions will do to the NFL’s brand and speculating on whether it will truly cause lasting damage – particularly amongst female fans. That’s the business piece. Then there’s the personal piece. As women, mothers and humans we’re reflecting on the horrors of the abuse and how it makes us feel.
I’ve never liked football and I’ve long been critical of the NFL, so for me this seems like more of the same, but on steroids and in full color. I remember the feeling of horror and shock when the OJ Simpson news broke. I was interning at a broadcast news production company at the time, so the flow of information on the story was non-stop. In 1996 there was also Lawrence Phillips, a known domestic abuser who was nonetheless drafted sixth overall by the St. Louis Rams, but is now serving jail time after a string of violence against women. The NFL has been here before.
For my Baltimore-based colleague, however, who is a Ravens fan, it’s transformed her view and rocked her world. She and her husband are season ticket holders, but she says she’s walking away. She declared, “Football is my favorite sport. It’s more than amazing athleticism for me; it’s connected to a lifetime of good times and memories with family and friends. But then this happened and I felt belittled and betrayed. This chain of events has sickened me to the point where I’m no longer a fan.”
Crisis communications is about reading the situation, transparently addressing it in a timely fashion, authentically owning the issue(s) and apologizing when necessary. It seems there’s been spectacularly poor decision making on the image management front all along the line here. It appears the NFL has repeatedly read the situation incorrectly, made a series of perplexing decisions and issued tone-deaf, half-hearted responses followed by yo-yo-style revisions. Judging by chatter on Twitter around #NFLdomesticviolence it seems Goodell’s press conference on Friday didn’t help.
The league has been courting women publicly – which is only serving to create a jarring disconnect for those paying attention. For example, the Ravens announced their “Man Up” campaign, a partnership with the House of Ruth, a center for victims of domestic violence, on August 29 before the Ray Rice video came out. They’re also known for their very visible support of breast cancer awareness, (though the football fields will be noticeably less pink this year since Proctor & Gamble just pulled out of the annual October campaign). Supporting these causes is important, of course, but these efforts feel like hollow publicity ploys designed to deflect attention from the real issues. To me they feel as inadequate as a doctor putting a Band-Aid on a gushing head wound.
Did you know that the NFL is a non-profit? Neither did I. The league pulled in an estimated $9 BILLION in revenue last year. Cory Booker is working to revoke the league’s non-profit status and re-route the money to domestic violence prevention programs. Now there’s a substantive change that would be worth promoting.
From my vantage point it’s fascinating to see the role social media has played in this. It’s manifesting in the #whyIstayed/#whyIleft campaign, which is populated by abuse victims’ gut wrenching 140 character confessions, and in the activism designed to put pressure on sponsors – like the Photoshopped image calling for the boycott of P&G’s COVERGIRL, the official beauty sponsor of the NFL.
In the wake of the tsunami of bad press the sponsors are reacting: Radisson is no longer sponsoring the Vikings and Nike is no longer sponsoring Adrian Peterson. Anheuser-Busch, which has a $1.2 billion deal with the NFL, issued a reprimand of the league. According to AdWeek, Castrol, PepsiCo, COVERGIRL, Campbell’s Soup, Wheaties and Visa have all expressed their disapproval. Verizon, on the other hand, issued a counter position – pointing to all its own good works on domestic violence prevention and saying it’s going to get more engaged with the NFL and work to change things.
A New York Times front page story gauging women’s feelings about the NFL pointed to a potential sea change: “Nicole Larvick, a 30-year-old mother in Chicago, said ‘it would take a lot’ for her family to stop watching football. But… Ms. Larvick has a new perspective. ‘Before this week I held the N.F.L. in a different view. It seemed different — like families and communities were important to them. But I know it’s just a business now.’” Then the story reached its conclusion: “Despite everything that has happened over the past week, Ms. Larvick, the Bears fan in Chicago, said it would take something else to compel her family to stop watching. ‘Something would have to happen with the Bears,’ she said. ‘If Jay Cutler did what Ray Rice did, I would stop watching.’”
I think it’s safe to say that the NFL has a huge fan base with deep-rooted loyalties. No one is predicting they’ll abandon football en mass overnight, but it’s also clear that the brand has sustained a significant blow to its reputation, particularly amongst women. The league is well aware that mothers have a strong influence on what sports their children play, what they watch and what they buy. The NFL felt a laughable two game suspension was an appropriate response before the Ray Rice video came to light and the moneyed interests started weighing in. The question now is can they right their wrongs, make real change and re-earn the trust they’ve eroded?