Management Control Seems to be Slipping as NFL Crises Accelerate

Jane Vaden

Image: USA Today Sports

It’s getting worse. The various scandals now engulfing the National Football League are not letting up. The PR crisis is accelerating, and fracturing, as conflicting responses seemingly are left to teams, and even to individuals. The league’s reactions have been all over the map, and the damage to the heralded NFL brand is exacting a serious toll.

The politicians are weighing in, and now, ominously, so are the advertising heavyweights, including Anheuser-Busch. The Radisson hotel chain has broken ties with the Minnesota Vikings, following star the running back Adrian Peterson’s indictment for child abuse in Texas.

In the latest twist in that case, the Vikings on Wednesday suspended Peterson indefinitely. That was a reversal of a decision less than 48 hours ago reinstating Petersen for this Sunday’s game.

The Vikings were apparently shamed into reversing course, after Minnesota governor Mark Dayton called on the organization to suspend Peterson and Radisson announced that it was severing ties with the team.

"Radisson takes this matter very seriously, particularly in light of our long-standing commitment to the protection of children," the company statement said. "We are closely following the situation and effective immediately, Radisson is suspending its limited sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings while we evaluate the facts and circumstances."

Anheuser-Busch, Campbell's Soup, PepsiCo, McDonald's and Visa are among some of the major sponsors now criticizing the NFL regarding the Ray Rice and Peterson scandals, according to the New York Daily News.

Bud Light, the league's official beer, which spends about $200 million a year on the NFL, said it was “disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season.”

Later Tuesday afternoon, the NFL responded to Anheuser-Busch's remarks, according to ESPN. “We understand. We are taking action and there will be much more to come," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to conduct an investigation into the handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. But that has hardly stemmed the wave of trouble that’s threatening the NFL’s credibility.

Goodell has appeared inconsistent, allowing some teams to continue to play athletes whose situations are similar to those of Rice and Peterson. And there has not been a statement from Goodell in days.

From the public’s point of view, appointing an investigation—to be conducted by a law firm with previous ties to the league, no less—is the equivalent of a politician appointing a blue-ribbon commission to examine a problem that doesn’t necessarily need an investigation. It needs a solution, and one for the long-term.

With all the controversy now swirling around the NFL, you may need a scorecard to keep up, and, from a crisis standpoint, that’s part of the problem.

Whether it’s the Rice or Petersen scandals—or any of a number of controversies plaguing the league, including the Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy stories—the NFL has shown a remarkable failure to get in front of the problems.

Most of the NFL’s actions have been reactive. The league is fumbling from one investigation to another without any set of guiding principles.

We get the feeling that this scandal is far from over, with Goodell’s job starting to look like it’s in jeopardy.

But, however things shake out, the NFL’s behavior in 2014 will serve as a classic case study in how not to practice PR and crisis communications.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1