Why the NFL’s PR Nightmare is Worse Than it Seems

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By Alex Altman

Roger Goodell with 1st Round Draft Pick 2015
Roger Goodell with 2015 1st Round Draft Pick Leonard Williams.

Next week, Roger Goodell will take the podium at the 2016 NFL Draft to the delight of thousands of bloodthirsty fans. With cameras rolling and millions watching, it’s the most high-profile chance they’ll get all year to express their contempt for the man running America’s most popular sports league.
The boos that rain upon Goodell on draft night have become as traditional as his handshake with rookies on stage. It’s hardly a surprise when you consider Goodell’s approval rating, a meager 28 percent, is on par with the least popular presidents in history.
Public opinion of Goodell can be attributed to a number of missteps that have angered players and fans alike. From slapping the wrists of alleged domestic abusers to grievously mishandling cheating scandals, few CEOs could survive such calamity. But here’s Goodell, nearly a decade into his run as commissioner, ushering the next wave of athletes into the NFL.
And herein lies the paradox: if Goodell has messed up so badly, and the NFL is mired in such a perception crisis, then how is the league more popular than ever?
On the surface, the NFL seems impervious to gaffes that would doom most companies. Few businesses could survive a single scandal — the NFL has ostensibly thrived in the wake of multiple. Fox and CBS both reported spikes in viewership last season, while NBC’s Sunday Night Football drew its best viewership in 19 years.
For all of the PR damage the NFL has endured, ratings tell a story of a league that is stronger than ever. How can this be?
By now, even most non-football fans are aware of the NFL’s concussion crisis. News stories dominate headlines and airwaves daily, while a pair of recent films intensified the narrative. The award-winning documentary League of Denial revealed thousands of former NFL players suffering from long-term brain injuries, while the 2015 blockbuster Concussion pushed the issue further into the public consciousness.
Fair or not, the sheer volume of media coverage underscores that this concussion crisis is more than a PR problem — it’s an existential threat. An NFL doctor even acknowledged during League of Denial that “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
Just a few years since concerns about head trauma reached a boil, teams are already feeling the fallout. Seemingly every month another player unexpectedly retires due to health concerns. Chris Borland, a rising star for the San Francisco 49ers, retired at age 24 last year citing the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma. Earlier this month, A.J. Tarpley and D’Brickashaw Ferguson followed suit.
Even scarier for the league is the impact this crisis has had on the psychology of parents. In a 2013 poll, nearly 25 percent of Americans said the risk of playing football outweighed the benefits. In 2015 another poll showed that number had risen to 37 percent. With fewer players signing up, the talent pool could plummet along with ratings.
While this crisis has yet to catch up with the NFL financially (and may not for a while) the league is facing a double-edged sword. If the NFL implements radical rule changes that deter hits to the head, it risks lower ratings. And if doesn’t, it puts its players — and its own future — in peril.
The NFL is running up the score right now, executing every trick play, converting on every fourth down, and feeling confident that it can’t be stopped. But football is a funny sport. The moment you develop an air of invincibility is the moment you become most vulnerable. For the NFL, that day is coming sooner than it thinks.
While this situation is clearly unique to the NFL, there’s a lesson here for all PR folks. Perception isn’t always reality. Sometimes, not even the numbers reflect reality — as seen with the NFL’s ratings boon. Keep massaging your image, keep asking “why” and “how” when analyzing PR data, and never take the support of your customers for granted.
Otherwise, not even Michael Oher could protect you from the blindside hit your business might experience.

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