Why Roger Goodell Continues to Get NFL Punishments Wrong

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 11:  Defensive end Greg Hardy #76 of the Dallas Cowboys on the sidelines before a game against the New England Patriots at AT&T Stadium on October 11, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Amidst the news of yet another domestic violence case, Roger Goodell and the NFL find themselves in the hot seat for the second time in two years. This time, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, is playing despite new evidence in the domestic violence case regarding his girlfriend.

Recently Deadspin obtained and published police photos of Hardy’s girlfriend bruised and beaten — a few weeks after his four game suspension was served. The recent developments in the Hardy case have exposed the mishandling of cases of this magnitude by the NFL and Goodell once again. As a result of the continued “fumbles” by the NFL, I thought it would be interesting to find where Goodell and the NFL fail in their public relations operations.

In an effort to further investigate the communication tactics by the NFL, and the channels through which crisis communication is handled, its important to understand the background, leading up to its current state. In contemporary media, the industry has exposed and contributed to the public outcry of such NFL domestic violence issues. The reccurrence of such events are reminders of how frequent NFL players are in the news for wrong doings, but the scope is rarely captured until the numbers are read.

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on the podium following Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images


According to a study done by Chelsey Monroe at Texas State University, over the last nine years, law enforcement officials have investigated approximately 50 domestic violence cases committed by NFL players. Of these 50 cases, one murder case and several accusations of assaulting pregnant woman. To dig deeper, in 14 of these cases, the league or team suspended or deactivated the players, in most cases for just one game. In 16 other cases studied, NFL approved no suspensions, seven of them in which accusations were dropped and six other cases in which the defendant was given an alternate program to avoid suspension or jail time. The study points to inadequate evidence, in addition to the lack of cooperation from alleged victims due to fear of the negative consequences for their family and security if the issue were the arise, as reasons for law enforcement to investigate appropriately.

The only player to have been suspended indefinitely by the NFL is Ray Rice, which will be the focal point of this investigation. His suspension, however, was issued after TMZ had released the surveillance footage. The delayed action by Goodell and the NFL is what had sparked the major controversy, that today is still crippling the organization.

At its basic form, crisis communication is a method in managing a public relations situation in times when the organizations reputation is on the line. Monroe cites Timothy Coombs in her study defining a crisis as a “sudden and unexpected event that threatens to disrupt an organization’s operations and poses both a financial and a reputational threat.” The reputation of an organization largely depends on its stakeholders. In the NFL’s case, stakeholders are the fans, the public, and media of the league.

Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife Janay at the Ravens training center on May 23, 2014 in Owings Mills, Maryland. Rice spoke publicly for the first time since facing felony assault charges stemming from a February incident involving Janay at an Atlantic City casino.
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In the Ray Rice case, Goodell and the NFL went into crisis communication mode only after the video was released. An uproar of concern in regard to the NFL and their ability to handle these types of situations arose, putting their reputation in question. The crisis was not only the fact that Ray Rice had physically abused his girlfriend and there was video evidence to prove it, but the fact that the NFL did not act on the issue right away, but did so only after immense public backlash. At this point, Goodell went into crisis mode, and was faced with a huge public relations problem.

One of the approaches in addressing an issue to the public is organizational apologia. From this theory stems two elements, image repair and image maintenance. Image maintenance deals with the preserving of ones reputation, while image repair is an effort to reduce the scrutiny of ones reputation.

Goodell and the NFL failed to confront the situation and address it appropriately, therefore image repair was necessary. Issuing an apology before missing the window of opportunity is crucial, and Goodell walked a very fine line meeting this requirement. After the first video was released in February, the NFL tried to attempt image maintenance, by giving him a two game suspension. Naturally, the public was outraged by the lack of intensity, expecting the NFL to punish Rice further than they initially did. This is when the crisis moved to image repair.

Subsequently, Goodell used a strategy called corrective action, or guaranteeing to fix the issue at hand, in addition to preventing potential cases from happening. The commissioner did this by writing a letter to the public and teams introducing the new policy for domestic violence. Goodell also used a mortification strategy, publicly apologizing for his poor judgement throughout the process. At this point in the crisis, he had no other choice but to implement these corrective strategies immediately. This was not the first time that a domestic violence case had put the NFL’s reputation at stake, and it probably will not be the last. Goodell had not managed these sorts of cases well in the past, which is why he was forced to go into full image repair mode amid the Rice case.

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When analyzing the case at large, it can be concluded that Goodell followed the necessary protocol in crisis management and communications, and acted accordingly, using such strategies as corrective action, mortification, and image repair. However, the NFL should have never had to go into the image repair stage had they handled image maintenance correctly. The Rice case was the tipping point; the NFL had had trouble in the past with maintaining their image with past domestic violence cases. Because of the video footage, Goodell and the NFL had no choice but to act in an authoritative way. Publicly apologizing, implementing new policies and repercussions, and making the players and teams aware of the actions taken by the league, were positive steps in the right direction, but it was too little too late.

Numerous research has concluded that their have been many cases previous to the Rice incident that should have impacted the NFL’s approach to domestic violence and personal conduct policy. As mentioned earlier, the NFL let approximately 50 cases fly under the radar, essentially sweeping them under the rug. It’s taken the league too long to actively handle domestic violence cases, and Goodell has taken much heat, and rightfully so. The NFL’s quest to maintain and repair their image in an effort to bypass brutal media criticism and the industry’s involvement is the sole reason why any action took place. If those videos never surfaced the web, there is a high chance that Ray Rice would be playing football right now. Goodell’s initial suspension of two games would have been served, and while it would have brought much public scrutiny, it would not have been anything different from the heat the NFL has taken over the past decade.

The NFL followed the crisis communication protocol, but only after the organization was forced to do so. Goodell should have never had been in the situation he put the league in, had he acted accordingly during previous cases. What is scary is the thought of other cases that were never even reported by the media. At some point, it is a player issue, which is another story for another day. Currently, Goodell is not America’s favorite person, but the NFL continues to thrive. If Goodell was the CEO of a fortune 250 company, things would be different. Sports entertainment is quite the safety blanket, and Goodell, for better or for worse, is cuddling safely in it.