Revenue-Hungry Athletic Associations Aren’t ‘Too Big to Fail’ at Crisis PR

For years, CEOs of corporations ignoring their communication advisors and saying or doing stupid stuff were this column’s primary fodder. CEO misbehavior still occurs, of course.

Of late, however, CEOs seem to be doing a better job of following crisis communication plans and listening to advice from PR counselors. Thankfully, for this column, sports miscues are adequately filling the CEOs’ clueless shoes.

Whether it’s tennis associations pitted against athletes, NHL hockey teams covering up sexual abuse, the NCAA battling its member universities and athletes, European soccer bosses jousting with fans or organizers of the Tokyo Olympics seemingly ignoring athletes, doctors and the majority of Japanese citizens–the antediluvian approach of these sporting entities to stakeholder communication is inescapable.

Like the corporations, unions and associations that preceded them in this column, the leaders of these organizations have gotten so caught up in internal bureaucracies they’ve completely lost touch with the constituents who enable them to exist.

We’ll focus on the Tokyo Olympics and the NCAA, which are in the news as we write this column. Both have managed to come across in recent weeks as tone-deaf, uncaring and inconsistent toward the people who are necessary for their success. Putting profits over people rarely works long term.


For years, the NCAA was criticized for arcane rules that ensured many of the student-athletes upon whom it depends for its livelihood could barely afford to eat. Never mind that they were inadequately compensated for use of their names and images, which generate billions of dollars in broadcasting revenue.

A small group of advisors and university presidents managed that revenue, determining the fate and livelihoods of some 500,000 student-athletes who attend one of the 1,098 universities that compose the NCAA’s membership.

That is, until last month when the Supreme Court stepped in with a unanimous ruling. Not only did the court shoot down the NCAA’s arguments, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh opened the door to further erosions of the group’s rules on compensating student-athletes.

Kavanaugh wrote the NCAA’s “business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.” In addition, he suggested that the NCAA’s argument was the equivalent of restaurants colluding to cut cooks’ wages because “‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks,” or hospitals deciding to “cap nurses’ income in order to create a ‘purer’ form of helping the sick.”

In response, the NCAA chose a noticeably different interpretation. It said the court reaffirmed the NCAA’s “authority to adopt reasonable rules,” while also saying it wants to work with Congress on change.

Its first move since the court’s decision was to approve an interim name, image and likeness (NIL) policy June 30, permitting NIL compensation for student-athletes.

In plain English, it seems the NCAA will lobby on a local level to try to change laws so it can do what it’s always done.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics

That’s not a typo. This year’s summer games are last year’s games that were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the games were postponed, in March 2020, we were still washing our groceries, masks weren’t required and doctors didn’t expect a vaccine until late 2021.

Since then, we’ve gotten used to the uncertainty and changing guidelines that research has delivered on a near-weekly basis. We’ve also gotten equally used to surges in cases and hospitalizations, videos of exhausted healthcare workers and awful images of corpses piling up for lack of places to put them. As a result, we’ve come to expect postponed or cancelled events.

But somehow the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee didn’t get the memo. It’s is determined to open the 2020 games later this month. That decision comes despite the pleas of doctors and nurses across Japan, the Emperor’s declaration that he fears that the Games will spread the virus, the plummeting approval rate of Japan’s prime minister, the surge in COVID-19 cases and the country’s relatively low vaccination rate.

Which is, in part, why communication from the 2020 Olympics is a mess. The spokesperson/organizing chief was forced out for sexist comments. His designated successor was deemed too old and out of touch. Finally, a former Olympian was put in charge. It may be too late. Rules and messaging for visitors, volunteers, athletes and Japanese attendees (foreign fans are banned) already were changing daily.

Organizers were mocked for providing athletes with condoms but not masks. So, they decided to offer condoms, but urged athletes not to use them during the Olympics.

At our press time, other Olympics-related issues arose: a snub of Black swimmers over swim caps and a ban against an elite Black runner for using marijuana.

With just weeks to go before the games, international athletes now are urged to quarantine for two weeks BEFORE getting on a plane, rather than upon arrival. With the latest WHO statement about vaccinated people wearing masks, the situation in Tokyo and elsewhere seems even more confusing.

All this conflicting information is no clearer in Japanese than it is in the myriad languages of the arriving athletes. Local volunteers are telling reporters that the ‘safety precautions’ organizers offered are insufficient and they are getting a bottle of hand sanitizer, but no masks. As a result, more than 10,000 volunteers quit.

Now with COVID-19 cases climbing again in Tokyo and athletes testing positive with the Delta variant upon arrival, the only consistent message seems to be ‘The games will go on’ and what’s really important are broadcast rights. n

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Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage D Given the broad reach of the NCAA and its “March Madness,” it’s not surprising that the Supreme Court ruling made headlines across the US. Responding to a Supreme Court ruling is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get out your messages and potentially change perceptions. Don’t waste it. The NCAA did when the organization repeated things it’s been saying for decades.
Effectiveness of spokespeople F Repeating the same arguments that just lost you a Supreme Court case is never a good communication strategy. It also didn’t help the NCAA’s credibility that its spokesperson was a gray-haired white guy, while 46 percent of the people whose rights it infringed on are Black. A decade ago, spokespeople had to have high authority and credibility. At the moment, credibility trumps position. If you’re trying to sound like a 21st-century, trustworthy organization, find a spokesperson who will seem credible to stakeholders who need to hear your message.
Communication of key messages F The canned statement the NCAA issued essentially said nothing that would generate support from either the athletes, Congress or other stakeholders. The memo released privately to member schools (that was, of course, immediately leaked to the media) was at least more specific. Yet it still sounded more self-interested than self-aware. Having a golden opportunity to broadcast your messages is one thing. Crafting and articulating the right messages is a very different exercise. Listen hard to stakeholders and tailor messages around what it is that they will find believable and possibly willing to support. If you have enough lead time, test messages against key stakeholder groups.
Management of negative messages F Every major news story referred to deplorable conditions that college athletes have suffered under NCAA rules. Most also cited billions in broadcasting rights that the organization is making off those athletes. Also notable was disclosure during the case of million-dollar salaries of some college coaches and athletic directors. Again, a major news story–whether crisis driven or not–should be an opportunity to get across your positive messages and if possible, change negative perceptions. It is not a time to stand your ground, restate the obvious and sound like you haven’t moved past the 1950s.
Impact on stakeholders D- The NCAA has a wide variety of stakeholders and constituencies, including fans, athletic directors and alumni donors. It is doubtful that any of them felt better after this debacle. On the other hand, current and incoming student-athletes and their parents likely feel a bit better. When you have a wide variety of groups that can make or break your business, your first exercise in a crisis is to predict the short- and long-term impact of ticking off one or more groups. Choose your priorities wisely.
Overall Score F The only winners in this crisis were the Supreme Court, who came out sounding wise and just. And of course, the athletes who finally got justice. When you’re on the losing side of a court case, keep your expectations low, test your messages in advance and do your best to sound contrite and credible.

The Tokyo Olympics

Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage F The Olympics always is a major news event, internationally and within the host country. Given that COVID-19 cases continue to rise globally, the negative coverage is only going to get more intense. If you’re doing communication for an international event in the middle of a health crisis, your one message should be, ‘We will put health and safety above profit.’
Effectiveness of spokespeople F The root cause of most of the Olympics’ problems is the inconsistency of messaging and the myriad of people speaking for, and about, the games. First of all, vet your spokespeople carefully for signs of sexism, racism or other indicators of potential inappropriate comments being caught on tape. Find one that won’t embarrass you. Stick with that person.
Communication of key messages F Given the changing nature of leadership–both the Prime Minister and the head of the Olympic Organizing Committee were changed in mid-stream–it’s not surprising that key messages were confused. Because communication around COVID-19 is challenging in the best of circumstances, you need to have a clear messaging brief that everyone can follow. In addition, create clear metrics that will show the extent to which each spokesperson is or is not sticking to the script.
Management of negative messages F With thousands of volunteers, athletes, trainers and others expressing concerns and opinions about the event, and the media looking for negative messaging around every corner, it’s not surprising that negative messages were almost all that came across from news outlets. In these times, you will never escape negative messaging, but with luck, if your positive messages are consistent, they may be remembered longer than the negative ones.
Impact on athletes F It’s bad enough that they have to prepare mentally and physically for the biggest challenge of their lives, but to juggle COVID-19 concerns, conflicting information and messaging makes it 10 times worse. It’s never a good message to the people you depend on for your event that you care more about the money you will be making off of them than their health and well-being.
Impact on sponsors D Given the circumstances, sponsors seem to be faring the best of all the stakeholders. Even major sponsor Asahi Beer didn’t balk when the organizers decided to ban alcohol at the games. With any event, it may feel like a delicate priority balance between messages that satisfy the people who fund your event and the talent that bring people to it. But ultimately, the talent always will have more credibility than corporations.
Overall Score F My mother would tell me (and the Tokyo 2020 organizers) that if you can’t do something right, you shouldn’t do it at all. And, while the organizers might argue that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances, given that they chose and contributed to those circumstances, it’s not surprising that they’ve lost the support of many stakeholders. In times of uncertainty, stress and a worldwide health crisis, canceling events becomes part of daily life. You should be more afraid of being known as a COVID-19 super spreader event than of disappointing some ardent sports fans.