“Athletes Behaving Badly” isn’t a TV Reality Show yet, but it could be. The National Football League’s brand is like Teflon — unblemished — but could it be?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has had a lot of practice protecting his brand from crises of late. We at CommCore think he’s managed it very well. Consider what he’s had to deal with:
• The arrest Thursday in upstate New York of former NFL superstar Lawrence Taylor on charges of raping a minor girl is as big a hit to the football league’s image as any that Taylor delivered to opponents during his stellar 13-year career. By consensus the Hall-of-Famer is the greatest linebacker of all time. His career with the New York Giants was equal parts kudos for transforming the defensive linebacker into an aggressive smash-mouth athlete of prodigious speed and strength, and shame for his publicly-documented self-destructive behavior including drug and alcohol problems while he was a player. He is claiming innocence, but the story is out. Taylor was honored as recently as last month during the annual NFL players’ draft emceed by…Goodell.
• Goodell recently banned 2-time and defending Super Bowl Champ and Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games of the upcoming seasons after he admitted to lewd behavior with a minor girl. Charges of rape were dropped by authorities, but that didn’t prevent Goodell from dropping the hammer on Roethlisberger anyway for the harm he had caused the image of the Steelers and the NFL.
• Coaches for the New Orleans Saints have been accused of illegally procuring pain killers for players.
• Recently the NFL has had to review its helmets and its rules for vicious on-field hits in the wake of a series of dangerous player concussions.
• The NFL and its players’ union are at loggerheads over a new contract after the 2010 season. The specter of a strike by millionaire players just as the country is struggling to recover from a recession is not exactly what Goodell has in mind for the NFL brand.
• Truly horrifying stories of retired NFL players facing crippling physical and mental injuries for which they are receiving little if any medical or financial assistance from the league have increased in the media in the past two or three years, including on broadcast network programs.
Yet, NFL football remains the most popular professional sport in the United States if you judge by TV ratings and overall revenues. The Denver Broncos’ NFL-branded jerseys sporting the name of popular first round draft pick Tim Tebow are selling like hotcakes. But it doesn’t take much for a sport to suddenly nosedive in public opinion. Just ask Major League Baseball after the player walkout in the 1990s and the steroid scandals of the past decade, or professional cycling under the weight of doping scandal after doping scandal.
Goodell has always reacted to a crisis aggressively by protecting the NFL brand first. He’s got his hands full now. At CommCore, we’ll be watching to see how he navigates these latest tempests.
What do you think of the NFL’s image, and of Goodell’s approach to protecting its brand? Is the NFL brand bullet-proof, or is Goodell just THAT good? Why do you think the NFL has succeeded better than other sports in remaining above bad publicity?