August 21, 2018
The NFL Message Remains Confusing and Conflicting
When you take a step back and look at it from a long-range PR perspective, the biggest takeaway from the ongoing NFL “anthem protest scandal” is that it’s a PR nightmare that should have long since been dealt with.
From the very beginning, it was clear that some NFL fans were not going to be happy no matter what decisions were made about players kneeling in protest during the National Anthem. Some group of fans, then, were going to “lose” in this situation. That much was crystal clear from the very first time Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the preseason in 2016.
You read that right, this PR issue has been dragging on for the NFL for two years now. Not only is there no end in sight, the NFL’s prospects and the consequences of its potential decisions are getting worse by the game. While the league doesn’t bear all of the blame for this issue or whatever the eventual outcome will be, there have been a series of poorly managed communication opportunities that have certainly contributed to an issue that is now threatening to damage yet another season of what was, two short years ago, America’s unquestioned “favorite game.”
In the beginning, when they could have taken a leadership position on the issue and planted a very clear flag, the NFL chose to ignore the situation. That’s worse, in football parlance, than punting on third down. They abdicated a key opportunity to control the message in the early stages of the game. I’m sure at the time it didn’t seem like a very big deal, but that was a very wrong presumption.
What came next was a misread of the culture and a failure of imagination. It’s pretty clear that no one at the NFL offices in a position to positively address this issue really believed it would get this bad. They didn’t see a cultural shift happening, and they failed to understand how quickly and how fiercely their fans could be turned against them.
By the time the NFL chose to take a stand on the issue, the lines were clearly drawn, and the fan base was no longer a single monolith: it was a clearly divided market group, two cohorts now fighting mad with each other. On one side you had the defenders, many of whom were only casual NFL fans, though there were several pro athletes and big media voices among them. On the other side, you had the jersey burning, NFL-Sunday-Ticket canceling group that wanted the players forced to stand and show respect. Among them, many prominent members of the military and the President of the United States.
During the off-season, the NFL and the NFLPA tried to hammer out a compromise, but it was far too late for that. The fans on either side of this issue were – and are – far past being willing to accept a compromise. That may have worked if the NFL had not ceded message control to pundits and social media provocateurs, but that ship has sailed. The backlash to the eventual tacit agreement was vociferous and volatile, so bad that both sides went back behind closed doors, where they still remain, a week into this preseason and two years after the first protest.
This situation has been a failure of initiative, a failure of optics, a dismal failure of leadership, and a long string of missed opportunities to manage the message. Fans are angry. Players are frustrated. Teams are confused… and there’s no end in sight.