By Dennis Culloton, President & CEO
In the Frat House favorite movie “Anchorman,” actor Luke Wilson is part of a macabre running joke where his character–the anchor of San Diego’s third-rated TV news team—has his arm cut off by a rival news team anchor in an over-the-top, news team battle royale and sarcastic homage to Blackboard Jungle, West Side Story and The Warriors. The audience and his fellow cast members see the machete attack develop in the free-for-all but Wilson, surprised, exclaims: “I did not see that coming!”
As the NFL domestic abuse scandal widens, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and many NFL owners may be saying the same thing as they take hit after hit to their credibiliity. And yet, like Luke Wilson, Goodell and the owners are the only ones who didn’t see this coming.
Not much has gone uncriticized for the NFL since the release of the video of Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancé on an Atlantic City casino elevator. With each passing day, the prognosis for Goodell’s leadership and that of some owners comes more into question.
As a veteran of crisis communications, I’m often called in after the crisis has started, sometimes from a client’s own making. I have no doubt the NFL executives around Goodell feel like they are under cannon fire in a remote location with no help on the way.
It’s too early and, contrary to some media reports, we don’t yet know what the NFL commissioner knew and when. Those who know Goodell say he is a good man who would never knowingly aid and abet violence against women. What is appropriate to ask is how this happened.
Here’s what I’ve seen. Organizations, especially high profile ones with a strong sense of identity and perhaps invincibility often breed executives with a very insulated view. When problems crop up, the executives rally round each other and convince each other of the rightness of their position rather than ask questions and take actions to get in front of issues.
The best crisis communications projects on which I’ve worked are those we’ve prevented with our clients by being inside the room planning for every eventuality long before trouble strikes. Those efforts have worked best when there is a diversity of opinion being sought and when everyone works to examine trends, strengths, weaknesses and threats. Before Ray Rice struck his fiancé, NFL players were getting in trouble that included violent domestic incidents. The security camera at the casino elevator merely provided us with powerful visual evidence. This is not the first time players of the violent sport of football have brought violence home. It took the new media of TMZ and social media platforms to make the Rice case go viral. But before that video got out, it took the commissioner to make a tone-deaf decision.
How that decision was made and what role owners and NFL staff played is the real question. Whether Goodell survives this prolonged scandal or not, the NFL needs to open up its board room and executive office doors to people who are in touch with what fans, women, politicians, media pundits and domestic abuse advocates might say. And then the commissioner and the owners to whom he reports must do the really courageous thing and be open to the viewpoints that may call into question the way they’ve always done things.
With a regular risk assessment and a plan to create policies and programs based on what you learn, the only excuse for saying “I did not see that coming” would be if football owners were reading a script from “Anchorman.“