To say that the National Football League has a public relations and image problem is like saying Robert DeNiro is a great actor – an obvious conclusion to draw if you’ve watched the news lately or have ever seen Goodfellas.

The 2013 NFL season kicked off with the shocking Aaron Hernandez murder inquiry and arrest, easily the biggest sports story of the year. Mid-season has been disrupted by the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying saga, a story whose highlights include allegations of racial insults, death threats to families, and possibly even accusations of coercion involving coaches who should be responsible for maintaining locker room culture. Not to mention the serious, widespread, and on-going health concern of the NFL — the concussion pandemic. Retired players from yesteryear are suffering from multiple mental diseases and afflictions resulting in premature memory loss, decline of motor skills, depression and even death, sometimes by suicide.

In addition to the ghosts of NFL past, the future is now at stake.  According to a recent ESPN ‘Outside The Lines’ segment, Pop Warner Football, the largest youth football program, has seen a 9.5% decline in participation over the last two years. This marks the largest decline in the system’s history.  For a league that has sunk considerable time, money, and marketing into beating out baseball for the title of “America’s Favorite Sport,” losing the interest (or worse…earning the aversion) of the next generation can only come as a clear warning sign.

nfl public relations

So what gives? Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner and the league itself are battered by the constant arrests, medical issues, and other problems chipping away at the sport’s prolific brand. Here are four suggestions for how the NFL can address, communicate, and handle these issues:

  1. Accept Blame. Until recently, it seemed as though the NFL was unwilling to publicly state that retired NFL players were suffering from brain damage due to the number of hits they’d taken as a professional. When Jonathan Martin abruptly left the Miami Dolphins due to alleged extreme bullying, many players and NFL personnel were quick to point out that this was an isolated situation and that it was “part of the game.” Incognito himself even stated that it was common locker-room culture. Players continue to get arrested for drugs, physical abuse crimes, and other legal infractions ranging from smoking marijuana to committing murder, yet teams and the league are quick to just distance themselves from these players. It’s time the NFL stopped absolving themselves of blame or ignoring the elephant in the room and started acknowledging the behavioral issues surrounding their sport and its players.
  2. Address the problem(s). After accepting blame, it’s time for the NFL to effectively address the problems head on. Many of the processes that have been put in place to resolve the aforementioned issues, such as player hotlines to report bullying, are merely for show and to cover the league when things go wrong. Rather than be strictly reactive, it may be time for the NFL to put some measure in place to get out in front of these issues. Whether or not that means adding multiple staff psychologists per team, creating frequent mandatory workshops to address locker room culture, or providing continued education on ways to handle the health problems inherent to being a professional football player, additional efforts need to be made to support the mental and physical health of the league’s players and staff.  The league did $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012 – the resources are there.
  3. Communicate quickly and transparently. When Aaron Hernandez was arrested for shooting and killing his friend, it took days before the NFL and the Patriots made a clear statement. Even worse, some of the early quotes didn’t mention the victim or what had happened — “I’ve seen a lot of things over 13 years,” Tom Brady told Peter King of Sports Illustrated, “and what I have learned is that mental toughness and putting aside personal agendas for what’s in the best interest of the team matters most … I have moved on. I’m focusing on the great teammates I have who are committed to helping us win games. The only thing I care about is winning. Nothing is going to ever get in the way of that goal.”  The league needs to react faster and open lines of communication — perhaps additional crisis communications training and a more upfront attitude would be more beneficial than canned, vague statements.
  4. Lead by example.  The NFL may say that it is committed to addressing the concussion problem, but its actions don’t indicate anything of the sort. The league has been rumored to be considering a longer schedule with additional games, which reduces the offseason for rest and conditioning.  This season, they’ve implemented weekly Thursday games, again reducing the rest period for players and putting them back on the field in a dangerous sport with only three days’ rest, which often includes travel. Fans and players needs to know that if the NFL says they are going to make changes for the betterment of the league and it’s players, that they mean it.

Until the NFL finds ways to identify and resolve the issues that have damaged their brand and sport, they will continue to lose millions in legal fees and settlements, while also compromising the future of game. Just ask Pop Warner. Hopefully the next few years will see a shift in thinking from top leadership and a trickledown effect that ingrains the new line of thinking in players, teams and fans.