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Roger Goodell passed on opportunity to reenergize his NFL leadership

Super Bowl XLIX attracted 114.5 million viewers, making it the most watched show in U.S. television history. That’s ALL of television history. Not just sports programming.

So it’s all good with the National Football League’s image because so many watched despite a football season fraught with controversy? Right? Not really.

The NFL scored BIG thanks to dynamic performances on the field by the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. Billions of dollars were spent on media rights and advertising buys and the wealthiest sports league added more money to its coffers.

What could be wrong with the NFL?

Too much. The NFL brand is bruised. In fact, the NFL managed to take a hit before the game Sunday even kicked off.

Goodell interview requested, rejected

NBC Sports and multi-Emmy Award winner Bob Costas requested an interview with Commissioner Roger Goodell for the network’s pregame broadcast, but according to Costas’ in an on-air comment, Goodell declined. As a publicist and a fan, I was surprised and disappointed. When your organization has been forced into action of a multi-million dollar fire extinguisher for a year, you welcome the chance to sit up straight and put your best voice forward with a respected reporter before your signature event.

Controversy has engulfed the NFL with a stream of detrimental videos, photos, concussion-related and safety-of-the-game publicity, lawsuits, suspensions and rules issues, just to name a few things that generated more media attention than games did since last winter. During that time, Goodell’s ability to lead was questioned. He did little to quell those thoughts during his annual “State of the NFL” press conference last week.

The NFL has a PR problem

While I believe that Goodell’s job remains safe as long as he continues to add more zeros to team owners’ bottom lines, the NFL has a public-relations problem. Just look at the headlines since the Super Bowl clock hit 00:00: arrests, suspensions, a player in rehab… Goodell should be concerned that a great title game and the game’s record-setting winner is being overshadowed by an off-season that began to ooze mud before the last flake of confetti fell in University of Phoenix Stadium. It may not happen tomorrow, the next day or next week, but the pace of bad news leads me to think of the NFL like a junk filled closet in an otherwise pristine home; the next person that opens that closet door will be knocked over by an avalanche of muck.

Had Goodell talked to Costas on camera, he could have restored a nugget of the goodwill the NFL enjoyed before its image took its first big blow when concussion suits were filed more than a year ago.

If I were his publicist, I would have advised Goodell to do the following on Super Bowl Sunday:

  • Graciously thank Costas for his time and opportunity to discuss the NFL’s health and image.
  • Answer questions thoughtfully, authoritatively (note: NOT condescendingly) and briefly.
  • Don’t rehash each detail of each controversy, but explain to Costas and millions of viewers how the league is working to combat and educate players about issues that include domestic violence and player safety on and off the field. Update fans about progress to prove that recent crisis-related hires were more than symbolic. Also, explain how the league is working to mitigate future crises.
  • Be forthright about timelines regarding ongoing investigations. I heard more fan frustration about the time that media spent talking and writing about speculative air in footballs than athletes that would play in the Super Bowl. News about that, as with other investigations, trickled out as if by accident. If the NFL were as transparent as it pledged to be, negative talk would be held to a minimum.
  • I would encourage Goodell to discuss how the NFL was able to put players on a Commissioner’s Exempt List with no time frame, and further explain what it is. Emphasize that protocol is followed and when those rules were established.
  • I would provide Goodell talking points with the above and emphasize the need to sound like the leader that his title and salary command.

Sherman on point

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman suggested last week that if NFL players are required to talk to the media, so should the league’s commissioner. It was one of the smartest points made all week. After all, during Super Bowl week, the two teams’ head coaches and players were required to speak to media several times. Goodell showed his face once.

In the midst some of the most turbulent periods during his NFL reign, Goodell seemingly hid and didn’t speak publicly for weeks. When he emerged, he sounded defensive and hid behind the “shield.”

When missions become invisible

Unfortunately for Goodell, the “shield” he vows to protect is slowly becoming more synonymous with Play-Doh rather than steel. I provide clients with go-to sentences such as Goodell’s “protect the shield” and “integrity of the league,” but when they’re repeated without action to support them, they ring hollow and are not effective. Those tags have become more like punchlines rather than words of strength.

Missed opportunity

Goodell turned down an opportunity to speak with one of the most respected sports journalists in the business. With that, he smothered a chance to reignite his status as a leader.

I realize and respect that the commissioner of a sport is not the leader of a country so these issues don’t affect life. Or does it? The NFL commands more attention than most international leaders and generates more revenue than some country’s economies. It shouldn’t be so difficult for its commissioner to speak to those of us that keep that lucrative sports island humming with our purchases and media loyalty.

What do you think – did Goodell do himself and the NFL a disservice by not speaking with Costas? I’d like to know your thoughts.


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