Roger Goodell and the NFL Need a PR Win, Especially with Female Fans

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJuly 30, 2014

USA Today

Roger Goodell needs a win. Perhaps the commissioner of the most powerful sports monopoly this side of the Atlantic can stand outside his Park Avenue, Manhattan office for a few hours and help little old ladies cross the street.

For a league that can seemingly do no wrong in terms of fan interest and popularity in America, the NFL can't seem to do much right in terms of relating to those fans.

The only public relations spin the NFL seems to have is, "Hey, look—football," and hope the fans of the game—and the media covering it—get stuck two-deep, if you will, inside the machinations of an actual game day so that it's impossible to remember how horribly this offseason has gone.

The logic is so simple, it usually works.

Football games are so much fun to watch that everything around them, and all the off-the-field nonsense, becomes secondary. The NFL lost a key player for a cornerstone franchise last season to murder charges and the league boasted the best ratings ever. The season before, the NFL had to deal with a murder-suicide and subsequent wrongful-death lawsuit from the families of one of its players, and the league manages to roll along, growing exponentially.

Does anyone really think the NFL can't survive a (literal) smack to the head?

Uncredited/Associated Press

When football is on, nothing else matters. That's long been the NFL's logic, and part of the reason the business plan has been so successful.

It just might not be working this year. At some point, fans will get fed up, and if a lot of those fans are women, the league has a different—and potentially bigger—PR problem on its hands.

When NFL offseason stories of players knocking someone out with a blow to the head have less to do with brain scans and lawsuits than domestic violence and suspensions, the distraction of "Hey, look—football" needs a reboot.

The NFL has failed miserably in this Ray Rice saga.

Goodell's utterly tone-deaf handling of this situation failed to consider how millions of fans would react to the two-game suspension and relatively nominal fine, and the way the league has handled the process says a lot about how the NFL views a large group of its fans.

The NFL constantly touts how many women are fans of the league, going so far as to suggest, via SportsBusiness Daily, that "women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL fan base, according to Scarborough Research, and approximately 33 percent of the NFL viewing audience based on Nielsen data."

Now, it's reactionary to suggest Rice should have been suspended longer than two games just because a lot of NFL fans are reportedly women, but the manner in which both the Ravens and the league itself have handled this situation is abhorrent and does nothing to show fans—both men and women—that it has any real understanding of the issue.

The Ravens put up a story on the team's official website that Rice received a standing ovation at an event this week. This was newsworthy in NFL circles—that despite all his hardships lately, the rabid fans of Baltimore still support their embattled star.

When the backlash from the NFL's decision to suspend Rice just two games reverberated through the weekend, the league sent NFL senior vice president for cleaning up messes like this, Adolpho Birch, on to Mike & Mike to hit back. Not Goodell:

On balance, we reviewed all the materials, listened to the persons we listened to, took the input of the Players Association. When we looked on balance at all of that, we believe that discipline we issued is appropriate. It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think that's fair to say that doesn't reflect that you condone the behavior. I think we can put that to rest.

See? The NFL does care.

It cares "hundreds of thousands of dollars'" worth. That's all the league can do, really, is make it about money.

That's all the NFL ever does.

The NFL is a machine, devoid of any personality, human connection or, as it seems lately, understanding of its fanbase. (Other than patriotism, of course—because nobody does patriotism better than the NFL.)

Goodell might as well swap places with Cletus the Robot; he comes off so mechanical and heartless when it comes to nearly anything the NFL throws its shield at these days. In this case, Goodell didn't even bother to stand up as the face of the NFL's decision, sending one of his staff to take the hits—pardon the pun—for him.

Hell, even ESPN bounced back better than the NFL on this story. When lead carnival barker Stephen A. Smith discussed the Rice situation on First Take, he tried to spin the story on its head, suggesting that women in situations of domestic abuse might want to avoid, as he ever-so-eloquently tried to put it, "elements of provocation."

Smith was lambasted on social media so severely that even his co-workers at the Worldwide Leader got in on the act, leading ESPN to have Smith record an apology before taking a week off from radio and television responsibilities.

You can see the full video of Smith's comments here, courtesy of

Smith was given a week off for suggesting a woman needs to be careful not to provoke what Rice only got two weeks for actually doing.

The suspension wouldn't be as widely pilloried were it not for Goodell's iron fist since taking over as commissioner, seemingly suspending players at his whim for time that, in some cases, far exceeds the crime.

It certainly doesn't help Goodell that at the same time Rice is still dominating the NFL news cycle, the other major offseason suspension is coming up for appeal, with Josh Gordon trying to have his yearlong ban for marijuana use repealed.

The two issues are wildly divergent, but timing and a clunky PR touch by the league have made them undoubtedly connected. The league may uphold an indefinite suspension for a player who, per reports, passed 70 drug tests before barely exceeding the threshold for a failed test one time, yet it decided to sit a guy for two games who allegedly knocked a woman unconscious.

It sends a horrible message. Goodell either doesn't properly understand that or doesn't seem to care. I'm not entirely sure which is worse.

Goodell is every bit the model of a modern-day corporate magnate, so much so that when he's seen in the offseason at training camp talking to players or interacting with the fans, the guy just looks, well, weird without a tie around his neck.

He seems fascinatingly unrelatable to the average NFL fan. It's amazing it hasn't hurt him, or the league, more during his tenure.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Go ahead and find me a picture of the NFL commissioner sans tie, interacting with fans, and tell me he doesn't look out of place. That's by design, by the way, in part because of who Goodell is and in part because of what the NFL has become under his reign.

And yet, since the start of last year, and particularly this offseason, the NFL has become something different than what that design has been.

The NFL does not hate women. Look at all the pink stuff it sells, and all the pink things the players wear in October for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. How can the NFL hate women when it loves the color pink so much?

What the league has never fully been able to understand is that wearing pink gloves and pink shoes and pink everything does not mean the NFL understands and/or cares about women. Caring about the fight against cancer is noble, but the NFL has gone so wildly over the top in the last five years under Goodell that the pink awareness has become something to parody, not necessarily promote, in terms of understanding and fighting for women's rights.

Seriously, the NFL can't even get cancer awareness right when it comes to women.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

With all the millions upon millions of dollars the league has raised—an amazing venture, truly—and all the stories we hear about why Goodell himself is honoring his mother with cancer-awareness initiatives, the league has taken a great idea and turned it into a public relations joke.

We must never forget that the league had its referees use pink flags for penalties, because unless everything on the field had some pink in it, there might be someone out there who was not aware enough about the struggle women have with breast cancer.

In October 2012, published a letter from then-11-year-old Dante Cano suggesting the referees use pink penalty flags. Goodell, seeing an opportunity to, I guess, come off as an actual human being, invited the boy and his family to a game. Here's his quote: "Dante had a great idea and I am looking forward to meeting with him on Sunday to put it into action. Sometimes the simplest ideas can be the best. I applaud Dante for sending in his recommendation."

Or, you know, the worst.

Despite how horrible the idea was—sorry, Dante—and how confusing it was for everyone involved in the actual game, the league tried to make the pink flags a leaguewide initiative last October. It was a disaster, so much so that the league had to abandon the move after one week.

It's Public Relations 101: Sometimes less can be more. Sometimes it shouldn't take the entire NFL public admonishing a decision for those in the league office to figure it out themselves.

At least in the case of the pink flags, the NFL was merely a bit clumsy, not malicious. Recall, if you will, the decision to eliminate bags—read: women's purses—from entering NFL stadiums. That was just the league being mean.

Hey ladies, if you want to bring your personal items to a game, do it in a clear bag or stay in the parking lot. A woman can't even bring a pink bag into an NFL stadium in October anymore, a decision that would be kind of ironic, if it weren't so ridiculous.

Clear bags help speed up the screening process at the gate, says the league, so who cares about a woman's self respect when there are tickets to take and, by golly, football to watch?

The NFL's online shop even has a tab it cleverly calls "All Clear," with 110 different items you can totally see through. Because if there's one thing the NFL does not do, it's trust women with bags.

In today's NFL, is this legal anymore?
In today's NFL, is this legal anymore?Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

In the court of public opinion, when you are as big as the NFL, everything connects to everything else whether the league wants it to or not. That's why a decision in 2012 to use pink flags can connect to a 2013 rule to allow only clear bags in stadiums to a 2014 suspension of a star player for allegedly hitting his now-wife.

Should those stories connect? Probably not, truly. But when the league touts that half its fans are women, they have to. When multiple teams are embroiled in lawsuits with their own cheerleaders this offseason, it all connects.

Right now, the league just has a PR problem. Soon it could have a female problem, and if the league starts losing large portions of its fanbase because of the piling up of decisions that seem abundantly anti-women over the last few years, that becomes a money problem—and something no clear bag in the world can hide.

So really, the NFL needs a PR win. Badly.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

In a month where the two biggest stories have included a televised debate regarding "elements of provocation" and a former-NFL-coach-turned-TV-pundit-and-book-peddling-evangelist saying he wouldn't have drafted the first openly gay player in the NFL because he wouldn’t have wanted "to deal with all of it," the league really needs a win.

Football is back. Games will be kicking off, rosters will be shrinking and coaches will be sleeping on couches for the next six months.

Football—actual live football­—is its own public relations spin. It always has been, after all. But this month—heck, the last two years, really—the NFL could use a win, especially with 45 percent of its fans who deserve a win of their own right now.


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