Tag: NFL

How Not to Handle a Crisis: A DeflateGate Update

Tom Brady, who is implicated in an NFL investigation into whether his team intentionally deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game in January. Photo by Keith Allison. Used under Creative Commons license.

By Mike Kuczkowski

In Week 7 of what was a tough 2014 NFL season, Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady was ticked off.

It was halftime, October 16. Patriots v. Jets. At home. New England was up 17-12, in a surprisingly feisty matchup. At the time, the Patriots were 4-2, having endured two tough losses in the first four games of the season. Brady had two touchdown passes in the game already, but he was annoyed at the condition of the footballs he was throwing.

He turned to John Jastremski, Patriots equipment assistant, and told him the footballs “f***g suck.”

Whether that was a flippant comment or the start of a conspiratorial effort to ensure that Patriots footballs were pressurized to below regulations, we still don’t know. We do know that four weeks later, against the Indianapolis Colts, the Colts intercepted a football from Brady that felt “squishy” in their estimation. They tucked that little insight into their proverbial back pocket, waiting to call the Patriots out on it if it ever became useful. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is the NFL’s Pine Tar incident.)

Fast forward to the AFC Championship Game, January 18. Patriots v. Colts again. Second Quarter, Patriots ahead 14-0. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepts a deep pass up the middle intended for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Jackson hands the ball over to Colts team officials, who test the ball and find it’s underinflated. They flag it to the NFL, alleging foul play.

And so, Deflategate is born.

This week, the scandal trudges on, with the release of a 243-page report from the law firm the NFL retained to investigate the Colts’ allegations. The DeflateGate crisis erupted the next day, dominated the airwaves in the two weeks before Super Bowl XLIX, and now, it’s back.

It turns out, not surprisingly, there are employees of football teams who spend a lot of time preparing footballs. Breaking in the leather, reducing or increasing the tackiness of the ball. Air pressure, at least for some, is actually a pretty big issue. Clubhouse attendants joke a lot about the fussy demands of quarterbacks. Signed game day jerseys and footballs are given out in gratitude to the men behind the scenes. It’s a big deal.

And, it’s not without drama. Among other disclosures, we can now read the text message exchanges between Jim McNally, Patriots locker room attendant, and Jastremski – the two men responsible for delivering game day footballs that Quarterback Brady would find acceptable – that are as ribald as any of the jokes about Brady’s “balls” published in the midst of the scandal.

In one exchange, October 17 – the day after the Jets game – McNally tells Jastremski that he plans to overinflate footballs, just to get back at Brady for complaining.

“Tom sucks…im going (to) make that next ball a f**in balloon.”

Whether these texts represent a “smoking gun” of conspiracy, or innocent banter between two colleagues is up for debate. (Check Twitter, the debate is happening.) But, it further cements DeflateGate as one of the more ineptly handled crises of recent years.

I opined on Deflategate back in January, and said there were a number of clear missteps by the Patriots and the NFL in their handling of the crisis. In summary, I said the Patriots (and to some degree the NFL):

  • Bungled their disclosure of facts
  • Fumbled the roll-out of information about the incident
  • Offered up extremely amateurish spokespersons
  • Failed to manage the calendar and resolve issues in a timely manner
  • Failed to provide context for the importance of the issue at hand

Let’s add “waiting until early May to release a definitive account of what actually happened” to the list. And, that goes onto the NFL’s ledger. Conveniently after the NFL Draft. They appear to have managed the calendar a bit, shall we say, too deftly.

That said, the report itself is revealing in its facts. Startling in its candor. Along the way, it raises a host of issues that spell trouble for the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Specifically:

  • Jastremski and Brady talked a lot about the condition of game day footballs, and Brady took a personal interest in virtually every aspect of how those footballs were prepared
  • Jastremski and McNally joked a lot about that process
  • McNally, who was responsible for taking the game balls that the referees had approved onto the field, left the officials’ locker room with the footballs without permission, which is a breach of standard operating procedure (Walt Anderson, the head of the officiating crew, said it was the first time in his 19 years as an NFL official that he could not locate the game balls at the start of a game.)
  • Game officials did not accompany McNally and the balls to the field, as is standard practice
  • McNally stopped along the way and took the balls into a bathroom and locked the door for 1 minute and 40 seconds

If any deflating was done, that’s when it happened. (Incidentally, McNally’s nickname, according to the report, was “The Deflator.”)

So the whole DeflateGate controversy probably was not much ado about nothing after all.

Perhaps most significantly, it makes clear that at least at some points in his career, Tom Brady has been very concerned about the issue of the amount of air pressure of his game day footballs.

And as early as 2006, according to reports, Brady was one of several quarterbacks who lobbied for a rules change that would allow visiting teams to have more autonomy in the preparation of game day footballs. In the report, as noted above, he definitely gives staff clear instructions on the condition and the pressure he wants in game day footballs.

The report also explains something I criticized back in January – and suggests a different explanation for the dynamic I observed than I expected.

In head coach Bill Belichick’s Jan. 22 press conference, he said he was “shocked” about news reports of deflated footballs and had no knowledge about the process of preparing game day footballs. He was monotone and came across curmudgeonly, as he often does. Belichick ended it by saying the media should ask Brady about the issue: “Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide.”

Belichick’s claims of ignorance ran against his reputation as an incredibly detail-oriented control freak. And, his “shocked” quote drew comparisons to Captain Renault’s declaration of innocence about the gambling at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca.

A few hours later, Brady projected innocence and even bewilderment at the issue. In response to the question “Is Tom Brady a cheater?” Brady replied, “I don’t believe so.” Asked if he knew whether anyone on the Patriots had done anything wrong, he said “I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing.” In addressing how he liked footballs prepared for game day, he said he liked them inflated to 12.5 psi, which is the lowest level permitted by the rules, but that his process in general focused on picking gameday footballs based on their grip, not their inflation level. “It’s not like I ever squeeze the football, I just grip the football.” To many observers, Brady saved the day.

So, yay for Brady and boo (again) for Belichick. Except, the NFL report concludes in fact Belichick did not know anything about the issue. He was being honest and, I think, fairly transparent. Now it looks like Brady is at least stretching the truth, according the facts outlined in the report.

What’s next? Sadly, this report – 14 weeks in the making – doesn’t bring us what we need: Closure.

The report is detailed on the facts, yet equivocal in its conclusions: “(I)t is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.”

Now what?

That shouldn’t even be a question. There is no reason this report should have been released without at the same time issuing suspensions or fines. It should be a one-day story. Rip off the Bandaid. Deal with the consequences. Move on.

Instead, it’s as though the report is a trial balloon, intended to gauge the public’s reaction to the facts before the league makes its move.

This shows the biggest problem the NFL has, the lack of a disciplinary structure for issues of this nature. Commissioner Roger Goodell lacks trust, and candidly as the head of the organization he shouldn’t be the one doling out discipline. Someone else, someone credible, even-tempered and with a deep reverence for the integrity of the game needs to have the role of fining and suspending players and teams that violate the rules.

Goodell will eventually address DeflateGate. He may suspend Brady for a game or two, banned the clubhouse employees from the league or fine the team. For now, all we can do is speculate.

Which means more debate on an issue that should already be in the rear-view mirror. Meanwhile, the list of ways in which DeflateGate is a case study in how not to handle a crisis grows longer.

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.