In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, silently sat during the playing of the National Anthem in protest of issues of “systematic oppression”, “equality and social injustice”, “racism and injustice in our criminal system”, “oppression of people of color in the United States”, and to not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Thereafter, prior to several pre-season games, Kaepernick knelt on one knee for these same issues. His protest has been joined by other NFL players. In the course of the furor that this political gesture raised, the reputation and popularity of the NFL has been highly tarnished, and it continues to be a public relations challenge for the owners to this day.
The NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, and the owners of the NFL teams played a part in the unfolding drama, and largely missed important opportunities to protect their brand. Here are some of the mistakes that they made.
Immediately De-Escalate the Issue
Since the players were at the heart of the problem, the first step that the owners should have taken was a commitment to meet with the players to understand what they were doing. While there has been little mystery about the motivations of the players, misunderstandings and disagreements over their intentions have played a significant role in escalating the problem. The owners could have pushed the pause button by setting up a meeting with the players to listen to their points and have a first-hand perspective on the issues. This pause to behave thoughtfully could have interrupted the growing furor by seeming to be taking action without necessarily taking a position on the issues. The action of listening would have been a reasonable show of preliminary support for the players without committing to their cause.
Get Ahead of the Narrative
By remaining publicly silent, the owners lost the narrative, which in turn led to an increase in the crisis. During a major event that has such potential for negative publicity and perception, it is critical to get ahead of the narrative take a thoughtful, leadership role in finding a resolution. Another example of getting run over by the narrative was Facebook’s slow public response to the revelations of political influencing campaigns on the platform. Facebook’s silence gave the appearance that they were floundering – unprepared and unable to respond to the accusations and the crisis. Seeming to be struck dumb by the issue did not encourage any confidence in Facebook, Similarly, the silence of the NFL owners did not give their leadership any credibility.
From the outset of the crisis, the NFL owners were playing catch-up. They were responding to positions taken by the players, politicians and the public instead of making their own statements. Getting ahead of the narrative does not mean that the owners had to come up with some sort of solution. Rather, they needed to position themselves as actors instead of reactors, with the authority to steer the discussion in a productive manner. As easy, appropriate statement would have acknowledged that the situation was difficult and divisive and committed to hearing from all the stakeholders. In addition, they should have set a timeline for getting to the bottom of the issue and proactively given updates.
It Is Not a Zero Sum Game
Companies need to take purpose and profit into account when making any decision. However, these are not mutually exclusive. By siding with the outcry against the players, the owners eliminated any number of strategies that would have been less damaging to the players and their own reputation. After all, they made it clear that they did not support their player’s constitutional rights – creating winners (the angry fans) and losers (the players) without considering the long-term effect of this approach.
What is worse is that the narrative they supported with their new rule did not take into account the statements of the players that disagreed with the “unpatriotic” accusation being leveled against them. By siding with this accusation, the NFL owners reinforced a dangerous narrative that players who kneel are not patriotic. While the commissioner, Roger Goodell, did make the statement that “all” players are patriotic, by creating the mandatory stand rule, he undermined this small bit of support for the players. Instead, his statement that he is for the game and for the fans implied that he is not for the players.
Don’t Close Off Options
When the NFL Owners and Commissioner finally did act, they made a rule prohibiting kneeling on the field during the anthem, but they created an out permitting players to remain in the locker room during the anthem. No one was happy with this. The politicians and public who opposed the political position taken by the players were still outraged, and the players were unhappy with this refusal of support. The rule hasn’t stopped the kneeling, and it hasn’t helped the controversy. It only fanned the flames. Instead, the owners could have taken steps to support the constitutional, first amendment rights of the players without taking a stance on the political statement. Or, they could have gone a step further and supported the point the players were trying to make about larger societal problems. The owners did neither.
Keep Your Finger on the Court of Public Opinion
It’s important to note that public opinion is changing. There is still time for the NFL to re-engage with the issue. Now, with the season underway, they could take a different tack. Two additional changes in the situation are particularly instructive.
First, Kenny Stills, a Miami Dolphins wide receiver is taking a knee, but he is being highly strategic in doing do. He has been very positive in his messaging: he speaks of wanting to make the world a better place, he doesn’t respond to negativity, and he takes the high road. This is a player the NFL owners can get behind and support in his exercise of his constitutional first amendment rights.
Second, Nike has come out with an ad that supports Kaepernick, tacitly supporting his protest. The response has raised the furor to new heights with people publicly burning their Nike products. But Nike was prepared for the response, it made its choices about stakeholders, and it has seen an uptick in sales. Why? Because it embraced a message of support for an individual positioned as a lone hero.
Yes, Nike lost customers (but in all honesty, not the ones they wanted), but it gambled (successfully) that more people (for sure millennials) would respond positively to support for Kaepernick than would continue to embrace a divisive perception about the players’ protest. The NFL owners have the option of creating a roll-out strategy like Nike’s – with responses to the inevitable backlash – and put purpose back into their profits.
The latest challenge is booking performers for the Super Bowl…will see what happens next.
Be a Noisebreaker,
Jen Dalton, CEO of BrandMirror, has over 15 years of experience in strategy, marketing, and coaching. In 2012, she made a gutsy move into the entrepreneurship space, launching her branding business and became a certified master personal branding strategist. She specializes in building your digital thought leadership on LinkedIn and other social media. You can find her bestselling book, The Intentional Entrepreneur, on Amazon, which highlights how business owners can leverage their personal brand to grow their business faster.