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Crisis Scorecard: ESPN and the NFL

By Mike Kuczkowski

That ESPN and the NFL each face criticism for their handling of employee discipline underscores the unpredictable nature of the modern crisis, and how important performance in the face of unexpected events has become the measure of crisis response.

The league has botched a series of incidents of domestic violence and child abuse involving its players. Most notably, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to backpedal aggressively in the wake of criticism of his suspension of star Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. This was after the Website TMZ posted a video showing Rice punch his then-fiancee, now wife, in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino and knock her unconscious.

Rice, who was initially given a two-week suspension, was suspended “indefinitely” by Goodell, who later admitted, “I got it wrong.”

The Rice incident involves a rather lengthy set of facts here, though they are important in terms of understanding how things went so wildly awry. (SB Nation has a helpful timeline.)

To my mind, there are five critical factors at play:

  • Objectivity: Goodell played two roles in this case and neither one well. He both questioned Rice, during a meeting in June, and judged him, issuing a suspension in July. These are two distinct roles. The first, which focuses on fact-gathering, requires a dogged determination to sort out complex issues. For an organization like the NFL, it’s not enough to leave the fact-gathering to the criminal justice system. It must have its own objective standards of professional behavior, and apply the facts of a case to those standards. After all, professional football players are not average people. They are invariably multi-millionaires whose conduct reflects on their teams and the league itself, as the current case shows.
  • Fairness: Someone, ideally someone not on the fact-gathering team, needs to sit in judgment, weighing both the facts of the case and key issues that are outside of the core facts of the case. (e.g., first-time offense, violent nature of the offense, etc.) To many, Goodell’s two-week suspension immediately felt too light. An indefinite suspension now seems arbitrary, like he’s pandering to the critics. This is a hard decision to get right, which is why it rests with the league’s highest official.
  • Transparency: We live in an age of transparency. There can no longer be any expectation that facts or evidence in a case like this will not ultimately be made available to the general public. Technologically, it’s too easy to transport or transfer data and broadcast it to the world, as TMZ did in broadcasting the video from inside the elevator. There are also too many eyes on situations like this. Twenty years ago, the media list on a case like this would have included the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Now there are dozens of blogs focused on sports and entertainment news, each of which are pressing for a scoop. The instantaneous sharing of news via social networks stokes the public outrage on issues like this, immediately resetting the news agenda to put new revelations at the top of the heap. Organizations may still take steps to try to ensure confidentiality, but they should prepare for sunlight.
  • Sensitivity to Context: This is probably the most nuanced aspect of this, but it bears mentioning — crisis managers need a sixth sense about how events connect to broader cultural and societal issues and can become exponentially larger crises. Domestic violence has always been a huge concern, but we are living in a cultural moment in which women, quite rightly, are fighting bias and prejudice in multiple contexts. Between Mulalla’s Nobel Peace Prize and “Lean In,” Goodell’s initial ruling feels obliviously and wildly anachoristic, in a “Mad Men” kind of way. It’s as though he looked at Rice, who generally had a good reputation as a community-minded player, and his wife, who was also urging leniency, and did what felt right to him, which was wrong under any circumstance or any time. In the current context, the issue was bound to spark considerably wider scrutiny.
  • Accountability: Everyone needs to be prepared to be accountable for their actions. In this case, it seems like multiple parties failed the test. Rice’s lawyers, who described this as a “very minor incident” should face questions about that description. Atlantic City police, who charged him with a misdemeanor and released him and his fiancée together within hours of the incident, face their own questions. It’s legitimate to question whether prosecutors, who agreed to allow Rice into a pre-trial program normally reserved for non-violent offenders, followed their own rules. Rice, whose actions clearly jeopardized the reputation of his team and the NFL, must be appropriately held accountable. And, Goodell now must answer to owners and fans for his initially too-weak punishment of Rice, and for — by his own admission — getting it wrong.

This same set of standards could be applied to ESPN:

  • Objectivity: There’s not much question as to what Simmons said, millions of people listened to the podcast. But, there are plenty of questions as to what in his statement, which was simply a rant, violated editorial standards. Here’s the key excerpt:

Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such f***ing bulls***. It really is. It’s such f***ing bulls***. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.

 I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The Commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.

An objective person would have a hard time interpreting Simmons’ comments about Goodell as anything other than a strongly held opinion, perhaps an irresponsible one, but definitely within First Amendment boundaries of free speech. Odds are, as many critics have speculated and ESPN’s own ombudsman admits, there is a piece of insubordination in Simmons’ commentary — the “I dare you” part — that prompted action, which, in my opinion, is not terribly objective.

  • Fairness: Is a three-week suspension of a commentator for making a provocative but “within the realm of possibility” statement fair? I know of no comparable suspension in history. The immediate comparison was to Rice himself, whose initial suspension for domestic abuse was shorter. But commentators are another animal altogether. In 2007, Imus was suspended for two weeks after remarks so racist I don’t feel comfortable reprinting them here. ESPN has suspended people before for things like having affairs with production assistants, sexual harassment or racist or insensitive on-air remarks. The Simmons incident doesn’t have any of those elements. Candidly, I struggle to find a benchmark for comparison, which is troubling.
  • Transparency: Score a point for ESPN. They explained themselves and ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote a lengthy column about it, bringing his own perspective to the issue and saying he thought it was the right thing to do. Lipsyte raises a question that I believe is a legitimate concern – who is responsible for reviewing podcasts and columns before they are posted, and are they really in a position to push back on a ‘franchise player’ like Simmons. An excellent question, but one that should be directed at ESPN more than Simmons. After all, ESPN determines what kind of organization supports Simmons.
  • Sensitivity to Context: Again, Simmons has been on the right side of this issue. He’s been one of the set of people willing to say that Goodell got it wrong and willing to put people on his podcast who represented women’s point of view of the situation. Silencing that kind of a voice, while expedient in the context of a multibillion dollar broadcasting relationships, is dangerous.
  • Accountability: Ultimately, ESPN is not really accountable to the public in the same way the NFL is, although it probably should be. Most of the tools of accountability that would normally be used with a broadcaster, such as an FCC action, don’t yet apply to podcasts and digital sites. And it’s a general rule that unduly harsh discipline is less likely to bring an organization down than unduly lenient discipline. People can come to Simmons’ defense on Twitter, but obviously that didn’t change ESPN’s mind.

So ESPN comes out slightly ahead in this analysis than the NFL. But only slightly.

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