“Richard, why did you run? Running only makes you look guilty.”
“I wasn’t worrying about appearances, Walter.”
Several times over the past few weeks, the exchange above from the 1993 remake The Fugitive has popped into my head. Not because I’m on the lam, but because I’m a football fan who has watched in disbelief as the league — and its commissioner, Roger Goodell — bungles through the worst public relations crisis it has ever experienced.
With the league facing enormous (and well-deserved) criticism for its handling of the domestic abuse charges against multiple players — and one horrific charge of felony injury — its leader seems to be in hiding. Rather than get out in front of the crisis, Goodell remains “silent and invisible,” according to ESPN. “For more than a week, as pictures emerge and indictments are filed and news conferences collapse under the weight of doublespeak and obfuscation, Goodell has sealed himself away from the mounting pile of rubble.”
For those who might need some background on the story that has seized control of the sports world, last month Ray Rice, one of the league’s top running backs, was handed a two-game suspension for assaulting his now wife. Two games. Not surprisingly, the NFL faced a great deal of backlash, particularly since the incident appeared to be caught on video (it occurred in a casino, where cameras are everywhere). Sure enough, two weeks ago the video was released, confirming what many suspected; that Rice had knocked out his fiancé. Rice was cut by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league, and the NFL was praised for doing the right thing.
Here’s the problem. If the video had never surfaced, Rice’s initial punishment would have held up, meaning he’d be playing this weekend. But it did emerge, thanks to TMZ — a news website known more for chasing down celebrities than for investigative journalism. It caused many to wonder how an organization as powerful as the NFL failed to obtain the footage, and that’s where things got even worse.
What followed was a series of statements from Goodell that did nothing but cast doubt on his handling of the situation, leading people to question whether he and his staff were so inept that they failed to get all of evidence in the case, or, even worse, if they ignored the smoking gun. Neither bodes well for Goodell. And so after giving a pre-taped interview in which he answered a few softball questions, he hasn’t made any statements and has cancelled several public appearances.
A few have suggested that somewhere in the midst of this is a crisis management expert advising Goodell to lay low until the storm passes. Maybe in some cases that’s the right call, but in this situation what the NFL doesn’t seem to grasp is that the longer its leader remains silent, the bigger the story is getting.
Since the Rice suspension, several other cases have emerged of high-profile players who were charged — and in one case, even convicted — of assault, and we haven’t heard bupkis from the league’s leader, a man who, by the way, earned $44 million last year.
But while Goodell hides, others are speaking up, including Anheuser-Busch, which released a statement saying it is “disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season.” The company responsible for $200 million in sponsorship isn’t happy, and that’s bad news for the league.
Others have voiced serious concerns, including Pepsico, McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, and Visa. One company took it even further; the Radisson hotel chain, announced it was suspending its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings for its handling of a player who faces child abuse charges.
So how did Goodell react to pressure from sponsors? His spokesperson promised that the league is “taking action and there will be much more to come.”
The walls are caving in all around the NFL, and its leader, through a spokesperson, promises he’ll look into it. I don’t think that’s going to cut it. I think that, unlike Richard Kimball (The Fugitive), Goodell needs to start worrying about appearances.