Even if you know nothing about American football, you may have heard of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Their names will soon fade from the headlines, but a burgeoning image problem for the National Football League may not.
Martin recently walked away from the Miami Dolphins after he said he could no longer endure harassment by his teammates, led by Incognito. The imbroglio includes charges of racism and purported threats by Incognito to sexually assault Martin’s sister, and by Martin to annihilate Incognito’s entire family.
It sounds over the top, but not for the NFL. In the past two years, the league has seen one player charged with an execution-style homicide (Aaron Hernandez) and another murder his girlfriend then kill himself in front of his coach (Jovan Belcher). So far in 2013, more than 40 players have been arrested for various crimes. A book out last month, League of Denial, accuses the league of ignoring and even covering up evidence that players have suffered devastating brain damage as a result of their years on the field.
These issues arise as the NFL enjoys unprecedented popularity and financial success. Perhaps because of that, the brand – a collective of 32 teams – has been somewhat slow to tarnish. As the incidents mount, however, the league’s top brass needs to consider their next PR move.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the National Football League. Is the best defense, indeed, a good offense?
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Accentuate the positive. Like many organizations, the NFL doesn’t have complete control over its members but what the league does have is positive stories to tell: it has changed the rules of the game to try to reduce concussions, funds programs to examine head trauma and has “player engagement” programs that focus on mentorship and personal responsibility. These talking points should be in every team owner’s back pocket when speaking to the media. When an organization is the sum of its parts, PR is everyone’s job – not just the commissioner’s.