Rice crisis continues to batter NFL because it didn’t care enough to get all the facts out

This is a “bad” crisis: One of your most recognizable employees is shown on video stepping over his fiancée’s unconscious body outside a hotel elevator.

This is a “worse” crisis: You treat this event so lightly that you only sanction him for 8 percent of his work time and salary.

This is a “worsening” crisis: After weeks of denying that you acted with incomplete information and gave the gravity of the obvious crime too little weight, you admit, sort of, that you messed up and you increase the penalties on your employees in the future.

Does this finally end your already-too-long crisis? Only if all the facts are out.

Thus, here’s the “worst” crisis: An enterprising website, whose diggers realized that if there was video outside the elevator there was probably video inside the elevator, find evidence of a shocking left cross Baltimore Ravens All-Pro running back Ray Rice delivered to the jaw of his future wife, dropping her immediately, crumpled to the elevator floor.

His same wife, Janay Palmer, he would later presumably vow “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

This is the worst crisis because the NFL is wrong either way. Did it know about the video and ignore or cover it up? Or did it not know and not care enough to look more closely, bring its power to bear to find out fully what happened in that elevator and demonstrate for the whole world how little it really cared about domestic violence?

Rule 1 of crisis management is to gather and release all the facts as fast as possible. And continue looking for all the facts until you are certain there are no more to release.

CEOs lose their jobs for less than this. Leagues with an anti-trust exemption attract Congressional attention for less than this.

As Jerry Sullivan wrote today in The Buffalo News:

So TMZ releases the video of Ray Rice punching out his fiancee in an elevator. Commissioner Roger Goodell [above] increases the two-game suspension and the Ravens cut Rice. My question is, why did it take them so long to act?

It’s hard to swallow the NFL’s contention that it couldn’t get access to the video. How is it that TMZ could get its hands on it, but the all-powerful NFL, with its infinite resources and investigators, couldn’t do the same?

Goodell admitted – after the storm of public criticism – that he went too easy on Rice by initially suspending him for two games. He should have gathered all the evidence before punishing Rice. Maybe the commish didn’t want to know the truth.

Or try Juliet Macur in The New York Times:

Did he know just how nauseating it is to see a man crumple a woman with a single, almost nonchalant blow before he penalized Rice with a spineless two-game suspension?

Does it really matter if he did?

The league claimed on Monday that Goodell hadn’t seen the video, that the commissioner was just like the rest of us, seeing the grainy, black-and-white clip on the gossip site TMZ for the first time. It showed Rice punching his fiancée, Janay Palmer, the mother of his young daughter, in the head, then dragging her unconscious body out of a casino elevator like a pile of dirty laundry.

After he appeared to spit on her. After he shoved her. And before Rice stood by, doing nothing, as she sat up, seeming dazed as another man appeared to console her and help her to her feet.

Those vivid details of that night last winter are sickening. But you know what? None of those new details matter. Not a single one. Of course the video made the assault seem worse, and naturally it sparked a tidal wave of revulsion from the public, if only because assaults like Rice’s on his fiancée aren’t usually captured on camera or shared by TMZ. 

But the facts alone should be enough in any domestic violence case. When a man or a woman pushes a spouse down a flight of stairs or takes a frying pan to a lover’s head, do we really need to see video evidence to realize that the act was wrong and cruel, or to adequately punish the offender?

Based on the Rice case, it looks as if that’s true.

This is the worst crisis management — especially because the NFL is seen as the gold standard for dealing with its myriad public relations problems. The league is supposed to be smooth, smart, transparent and ahead of the other leagues.

The only group it’s managed to stay ahead of in this mess is New Jersey prosecutors, who saw no reason to arrest Rice or try to put him in jail for what he did. Shameful.

 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 and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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