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Deflategate Lessons for Crisis Managers

By Mike Kuczkowski

The two weeks between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl is usually devoted to celebrating the success of the two teams who have made it to the Big Game, examining their strengths and weaknesses, pulling together Super Bowl party menus and generating some excitement about one of the few remaining mass cultural events in America.

We’ve spent the past two weeks talking about, ahem, New England’s balls.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know the core allegation: The New England Patriots used footballs that were not inflated to league specifications during their AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts on January 18.

According to reports, 11 of 12 of the balls were below the lower limit of the range of approved PSI (12.5 PSI). Referees apparently checked the footballs 2.5 hours before game time, and they met the regulatory standard. At half time of the game, they did not. Why? We don’t know. But the idea, at least the assumption, is that the New England Patriots gained some tactical advantage in their 45-7 drubbing of the Colts by using underinflated footballs.

Is this a big deal? No. And yes. It is true that the discussion itself sounds trivial – and in many respects it is. But the NFL, as we’ve noted previously, is a serious business. It’s a major part of American culture. With an anticipated 113 million viewers Sunday, it is one of the few mass events in an increasingly fragmented culture. Lots of advertising and sponsorship dollars are counting on a good, scandal-free game.

Deflategate has created a circus-like atmosphere. New England Head Coach Bill Belichick, Quarterback Tom Brady and Owner Robert Kraft have each had at least one press conference to discuss the issue, essentially denying any wrongdoing. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has pledged to get to the bottom of the matter, though so far the NFL’s investigation has not come to any conclusions.

For communications and crisis management experts, the whole affair has been a vividly unfolding case study of what not to do and what goes wrong when an organization takes a ‘seat-of-the-pants’ approach to crisis management. In short, it’s been a disaster. The Patriots have done poorly, as has the league itself, and the consequence is a little gray cloud hanging over Sunday’s proceedings — and a sharply divided nation over whether the Patriots cheated.

It did not have to be this way. This so-called scandal should have lasted one news cycle, maybe two, if it had been managed correctly.

Here are six key issues that have allowed this incident to become ongoing national news, most of which could have been easily mitigated or resolved.

Excuses, excuses: Somehow, two weeks into this scandal, no one has been able to definitively say what happened. In his first press conference, Belichick said he did know anything about how footballs are prepared or approved for use prior to a game. And then he kept saying “I’ve told you everything I know,” to each question. Which is defensive by definition. Brady said he didn’t know what happened. The NFL seems to be leaking out details of its investigation, but overall it has not said what happened. We’re all left to wonder about the core facts, which is not a place we should be two weeks into this discussion. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Patriots don’t know what happened, as they have said. But, then the league ought to be able to certify that footballs can, in fact, lose pressure due to other factors, such as atmospheric conditions. Takeaway: Someone, anyone, should have offered a set of definitive facts as quickly as possible, making it clear what is known and what is not.

The Roll-Out: Last Thursday morning, Belichick had a press conference in which he essentially denied all wrong-doing, and then said everyone should ask the quarterback. The six-hour pregnant pause in all of New England between the end of Belichick’s press conference and the start of Brady’s created some anticipation that Brady would take responsibility for the deflated footballs. But, then he didn’t. Brady came off as genuinely surprised and boyishly innocent about the whole thing. Still, separating those two press conferences and continuing to address it on Saturday and this week has fed the media beast on the issue far beyond what was necessary. The league issued a press release on a Friday afternoon that said nothing, other than that it was investigating the issue. Kraft was silent until Monday, leading to speculation about his views. Takeaway: The Patriots should have held one press conference, together, outlining the facts, presenting a unified image. Goodell should have addressed it sooner.

Spokespersonship: I’ve talked about this before, but there is an art to being an effective spokesperson. Either Belichick refuses to prepare properly or is uncoachable in this area. He is truculent with the media. He comes across as though he is hiding things when he is not. His eyes shift, his jaw sets, he leans back and he seems physically defensive. There is nothing reassuring about his tone or body language. Brady looked fairly open and, in my view, innocent. Goodell, like he was almost scared in his press conference. Takeaway: Each could use coaching on delivering clear, concise and direct answers to questions.

The Calendar: If there is one truth in life and in crisis, it is that the calendar does not lie. Good crisis managers know that the calendar is the backbone of almost everything they will do. Yet, we’re going to watch a major sporting event Sunday, without a resolution of this tempest. That’s bad for everyone. If the Patriots win, New England will rejoice and the rest of the nation will call them cheaters. If the Seahawks win, the nation will say that it proves the Patriots cheated to get there and when the world was watching, they could not cheat and were defeated. Both of those interpretations are wildly unfair. One cannot gather all the facts on everything in a limited time span, but it does seem like this should be the sort of thing that could be done completely and quickly. Takeaway: As soon as this was seen to be a significant issue, the organizations involved – both the Patriots and the NFL, needed to start managing the clock and looking to address questions and put the issue behind them.

Reputation and trust: The Patriots have been accused of, and in one instance found guilty of cheating. In 2007’s “SpyGate” scandal, the team was accused of videotaping the New York Jets defensive coaches during a 2007 game, . Even the completely legal, “trick” offensive formations the Patriots used against the Baltimore Ravens in their second-round playoff game, were a proof point that New England will look to bend the rules. In that context, Belichick’s repeated denials strained belief. The NFL has shown that it can barely manage a crisis, performing poorly on the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson off-the-field domestic violence issues. And, it came up short by not dealing effectively with this one. Takeaway: Reputation matters, and needs to frame the context of the messaging around crises, and the approach to the response.

Lack of context: The one question no one appears to have addressed is, does this thing really matter? What is the punishment for using underinflated footballs during regulation play? I presume that there is no punishment, since the referees did not impose a penalty on the Patriots after the issue was discovered at halftime of the game. I’ve seen multiple demonstrations of how deflated footballs either do or don’t aid a passer or a running back. So if there is no punishment, is there a crime? Multiple quarterbacks have stated that it really doesn’t make a difference. Based on that, I’m inclined to think this is much ado about nothing, but by failing to set that context, the league has allowed the situation to get completely out of hand. Takeaway: Someone needs to address the stakes and help the general public understand what matters in an incident like this. Often best if it is a credible third party. Both organizations didn’t do that, and so we’re all left wondering what to think.

So what does this all mean? This reminds me of the famous “Pine Tar” incident in Major League Baseball. In 1983, when the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals were playing a not-terribly significant game, George Brett came up in a 4-3 game in the bottom of the 9th inning and hit a home run. Yankees General Manager Billy Martin protested to the umpires that Brett’s bat had an excess of pine tar that was against the regulations. On the spot, umpires inspected the bat, declared the home run nullified and called Brett out, ending the game.

It was an incredibly controversial call. Brett rushed out of the visiting dugout, looking like he was going to kill the umpire. He had to be restrained and started screaming. Soon it emerged that Martin had noticed the pine tar earlier in the season, and had waited for the right moment to raise the issue.

I’d forgotten the outcome of the incident – my most vivid recollection was the image of Brett screaming at the umpires. It turns out that the Royals appealed the umpires’ decision. The League granted their appeal and reinstated Brett’s home run. They ordered that the game be replayed from the point of Brett’s home run, later in the season.. The Yankees did not score, and the Royals won the game 5-4.

It was the right call, no question about it.

Applying this to Deflategate, the parallels are clear, and the differences are instructive. In the pine tar incident, referees made an overreaching decision on the field, and the league stepped back, evaluated the thing that mattered most – did the pine tar meaningfully impact Brett’s ability to hit the home run – and came to a clear, fair decision.

In Deflategate, it’s clear that the whole issue was not important enough to prompt the referees to take any action on the field. And yet, we now have a league that is investigating the issue and potentially meting out punishment based on what that investigation finds.

My sense is that the regulation about football inflation levels is merely meant to standardize the game, not to deny cheaters a competitive advantage. I think it’s also likely that there are conditions in which a football can lose pressure without a vast conspiracy to carry it out.

Regardless, the past two weeks have given us a lot to think about from a crisis management perspective. Deflategate has shown us how quickly a minor issue can emerge from nowhere and dominate an industry’s discussion. It’s shown us how long a crisis can persist when key questions remain unanswered. It’s shown us how poor performances by leaders can raise doubts and fuel negative speculation based on reputational issues.

More than anything, it has shown how needed a decisive arbiter is in situations that involve allegations of cheating.It would be great to hope we could have league come forth with a clear and decisive proclamation about Deflategate that will put everything into perspective and allow us to enjoy a game. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put great odds on that happening.

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