NFL Season Kicks Off with Plenty of Action and Drama (and some of the games were good, too)

Colts Handle Andrew Luck Retirement with Dignity, League Signs Jay-Z as an Ally, and Patriots Deal with Rape Allegations Against Antonio Brown        

9/12/19 – – Baseball may still be America’s pastime, but football sure gets its share of attention — on and off the field. As the 2019 professional football season began last weekend, the Indianapolis Colts, the National Football League and the New England Patriots were dealing with issues dangerously close to becoming reputational storms. From a crisis-prevention point of view, how are these organizations handling their early season challenges?

Indianapolis Colt’s Handle Andrew Luck Retirement with Dignity

During the preseason, the Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback Andrew Luck unexpectedly announced his retirement at age 29. One of the best quarterbacks in the league, Luck had suffered through multiple injuries during his seven-year career, and was again dealing with pain. What made this situation particularly interesting to crisis communicators was the decision by Colts’ owner Jim Irsay to give up his organization’s right to recoup $24.8 million dollars from Luck’s pro-rated salary and signing bonus. Irsay wanted the parting to be as amicable and positive as possible. (And who knows if young Mr. Luck may have a change of heart and want to get back on the field?)

Not every professional athlete who quits in the middle of a contract term has been treated so graciously. When I lived in Detroit, the Lion’s star running back was Barry Sanders. He was one of the only bright spots on a perennially underachieving team. When he decided to hang up his cleats early, the Ford family, long-time owners of the Lions, made him write them a check for $5.5 million. They had every right to do it, but what was perceived by loyal Detroit fans to be a petty, retaliatory action cost the Lion’s organization years (and I would argue many millions of dollars) of ill will and mistrust in the community.  

In Chapter 18 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Dealing with Leadership Transitions”), I outline the first principles of Dignity, Dollars, and Destiny, which I advise clients to follow when dealing with layoffs, high-profile job terminations and leadership transitions. The Luck and Sanders situations are not identical to typical corporate separations, but the lessons still hold. Treating someone leaving your employ with respect (Dignity), providing as much financial stability as possible (Dollars) and making sure everyone is looking positively to the future, rather than resentfully to the past (Destiny) smooths transitions, preserves morale and avoids litigation.

Most of the Colts’ fan base applauded Irsay’s generosity and have put the Luck retirement behind them. In Detroit, they’re still longing for the days of Barry Sanders and talking about the nasty thing “those Fords” did to their beloved running back.

NFL Signs Jay-Z as an Ally

In August, the National Football League announced an agreement with influential performer Jay-Z and his music company, Roc Nation, to “lead the league’s endeavors in music and entertainment.” In addition to co-producing music with the NFL and jazzing up the Super Bowl halftime show, Jay-Z will be advising the league on how best to activate its “Inspiring Change” social justice initiative, created (at least in part) in response to the controversy set off in 2016 by San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

Welcoming the partnership, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “The NFL and Roc Nation share a vision of inspiring meaningful social change across our country . . . We look forward to making a difference in our communities together.”

One of the seven elements measured by the Crisis Preparedness Quotient is “Allies.”  We ask companies, “Through your actions and commitments, have you nurtured alliances and earned the friendship of influential organizations and individuals who could help you in a pinch?” The opportunity to expand its entertainment offerings may be the primary reason for the NFL/Jay-Z alliance, but securing the input, influence and support of a powerful ally is a desired benefit of the relationship as well.

The NFL was caught off guard by the passionate public reaction on all sides to Colin Kaepernick’s actions and the explosive racial issues he raised. The league’s response over the last few years has been inconsistent at best. You can understand why the owners of NFL teams, mostly white men, would want to hear from other voices and enlist new allies to devise a better way forward — and avoid future crises. As Commissioner Goodell stressed, “We don’t want people to come in and necessarily agree with us; we want people to come in and tell us what we can do better.”

Not everyone is buying the alliance’s legitimacy.

Eric Reid, a former teammate of Colin Kaepernick, tweeted, “Jay-Z doesn’t need the NFL’s help 2 address social injustices. It was a money move 4 him & his music business. The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin.” (Kaepernick has been unable to sign with another NFL team since he opted out of the final year of his contract with the 49ers.)

Building relationships with allies who bring new points of view and are respected by key audiences is an important part of crisis prevention and preparedness (that’s why it’s measured in the Crisis Preparedness Quotient). The NFL and Roger Goodell deserve credit for adding Jay-Z to their team. It will be fascinating to see how it all turns out.

Patriots Deal with Rape Allegations Against Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown, after being released over the weekend by the Oakland Raiders, became a member of the New England Patriots on Monday.  On Tuesday, a woman named Britney Taylor filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against the super star wide receiver alleging three instances of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018, including rape.

Brown has denied the charges, insisting that, “any sexual interaction with Ms. Brown was entirely consensual,” and that his former University of Central Michigan classmate and personal trainer is pursuing a “money grab.” His attorney has pledged to, “pursue all legal remedies to not only clear his name, but to also protect other professional athletes against false accusations.”

So, what’s going to happen next? We know from a statement put out yesterday by the Patriots that the NFL is looking into the matter: “The league has informed us that they will be investigating. We will have no further comment while that investigation takes place.” No decision yet by the Patriots as to whether Brown will suit up for their game on Sunday against the Dolphins in Miami.

Britney Taylor’s allegations are horrific and deserve to be taken seriously by the public and the court. Antonio Brown, like all Americans, deserves due process and the presumption of innocence. That’s how our legal system works. But it is not designed to yield a conclusion by the next news cycle. So, especially in the Me-Too era, organizations and individuals faced with such charges have to act well ahead of any legal conclusion. Recognizing this reality, the NFL wisely created what it calls the “Commissioner’s Exempt List.” Players on this list have been accused of violating the league’s code of conduct. While the league investigates the matter, the player is prohibited from playing for their team, but continues to receive his salary.

My guess is that Antonio Brown will find himself on the Commissioner’s Exempt List before Sunday’s kickoff. That will take the pressure off the Patriots to act on their own and give the league time to look into this matter, a challenge made more difficult by the fact that Ms. Taylor filed a civil, rather than a criminal complaint. There are no police reports to jump-start the league’s investigation.

But that’s not the crisis-prevention lesson I want to highlight here.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Where Crisis Come From”), we examine nine common sources of crises. The first is “People.”

Jim Collins’, in his bestselling business book, Good to Great, stresses that great companies, “start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus.” Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization have clearly made more good personnel decisions than bad, or they would not have won six Super Bowl championships. But let’s be honest, the Antonio Brown decision was bad. Put the allegations of sexual assault aside. There were signs of trouble flashing all around this guy.

After nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (he made the Pro Bowl seven times), Brown became unhappy and forced a trade at the end of last season to the Oakland Raiders, where he wore out his welcome fast. He was released by the Raiders before the season started when recovery from an off-season bout with frostbite on his feet, a prolonged hissy fit about the league’s new standards for helmets, and blatant disrespect for Raider’s management kept him from contributing. The final straw was his posting on Instagram demanding his release.

What can businesses learn from this? As I write in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, “It’s amazing how many companies tolerate ‘bad apples’ within their ranks. The rationalization usually centers on perceived productivity and value. ‘Yes, he’s a horse’s ass, but he’s our best salesman by far.’ ‘Okay, she bends the rules, but her department’s results speak for themselves.’ Excuses like these are reliable harbingers of crises.”

Remember the still-unfolding saga of Antonio Brown the next time someone suggests that it’s worth taking a gamble on a high-performing, very high-risk employee. Unless your track record is as good as Bill Belichick’s, that may be the last hiring decision you ever make.  

If the next 16 weeks are as interesting as the NFL’s first, we’re in for one hell of a season!

UPDATE, 9/19/19 – – Nike announced today that it had ended its sponsorship relationship with Antonio Brown, as additional allegations of sexual misconduct come to light.

UPDATE, 9/21/19 – – The New England Patriots released Anotnio Brown yesterday as the NFL continues its investigation into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against the star receiver.

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