NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell followed one of the cardinal rules of good crisis management — if your mistakes caused the crisis, apologize. But he forgot the first corollary.
Goodell and the NFL owners thought they had a winning argument in labor negotiations with the league’s referees, who the billionaire owners locked out through the first three games of the season. Fans and media hated the idea, because they could see where it would likely lead. And it did, right to Golden Tate’s theft of the football and the Monday Night Football game for Seattle against Green Bay a week ago.
Faster than you can say “replay booth” the NFL and the refs huddled over the talk table and hammered out a new deal in time for the men in stripes’ return to the field Thursday night. The refs certainly got a better deal for salary, pension and duration of the contract than before Tate’s “touchdown.” Now the refs can thank that Golden moment for reinforcing their worth.
In the wake of the returning refs, Goodell did “apologize” to fans. But you could just tell his heart wasn’t in it. If you watch the video, the Tate play was just the last straw, Goodell said, it wasn’t the overriding one. Really? They were “this close” to an agreement after 10 days of intense negotiating. The hue and cry and pitchforks and torches around the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters after the Green Bay-Seattle game never happened.
“I believe we would have reached agreement this week, regardless of Monday night or Sunday night or the past weekend,” Goodell said at his post-game news conference Thursday. Really?
The owners and the commissioner’s office got shown up on national television, replacement refs’ decisions called the game’s integrity into question when the wrong team was awarded victory, and the league had to scramble to settle and get the refs back.
It’s as plain as the laces on a game ball. Goodell apologized to the fans. But his heart’s not in it because the NFL didn’t control the outcome. The Seattle Snatch embarrassed the league.
When it comes to a crisis, an apology can often defuse building anger. But that apology must ooze sincerity and scream credibility. Goodell’s was routine at his news conference, almost off-hand. And then he formalized it with a letter to season’s ticket holders.
Apologizing is better than nothing, but as you can see from ESPN’s reaction [link above] Goodell’s wasn’t very convincing and that risks alienating even more people.
Almost across the league’s 15 games since the settlement, fans cheered the refs’ return. I didn’t see or hear any cheers for the league, the commissioner or the owners.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.