NFL needs a crisis management game plan — and must stick to it

Misplaying the Ray Rice (left) and Adrian Peterson situations has turned up the heat on Roger Goodell and the NFL.

Rob Carr/Andrew Burton/Joe Kohen/Getty Images

It seems the pages of the NFL’s crisis management playbook that pertain to domestic abuse must have been misprinted. Or perhaps they were never printed at all. Or maybe they were left in the printer tray.

Because in the months since a grainy video of former Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator saw the light of day, the NFL has bungled at every turn its opportunity to make a clear and unmistakable stance against that kind of abuse.

The league has been a model for how not to deal with the aftermath of a star player punching out his spouse in public, and more recently, the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings have been a shining example of what not to do when All-Pro running Adrian Peterson beats his child, leaving marks that still show even a week later, only to brush it off like no big deal.

One would think it should be a relatively easy puzzle to piece together: If you, as a professional football player, do something reprehensible — particularly to a woman or child — then there should be no room for you in the league. And it shouldn’t take a cacophony of voices ranging from ticket-buying fans to deep-pocketed sponsors to arrive at that conclusion. Disappointingly, that hasn’t been the case, as the NFL continues to tinker with and work out the kinks in a game plan that should have been reliable and ironclad from the start.

Fortunately, if you’re the NFL, there is still hope — not so much that the current situation can be salvaged, but that it won’t leave a permanent mark on the league going forward.

Because despite what the NFL and its teams may have done right — not a lot — and done wrong — seemingly everything — in the wake of the Rice scandal and during the Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, Peterson and Jonathan Dwyer incidents since, there’s still time and a chance for the league to save face, even if, at this point, that only means being ready for it the next time it happens.

“The NFL is not sticking to any one plan. They’re not holding the line,” Susan Vernon-Devlin, vice president of public relations at Massey Communications in Orlando, Fla., told FOX Sports on Thursday.

“They said, ‘Here’s a suspension — oh let’s reverse the suspension,’ or, ‘Here’s someone who can play — oh, no, now he can’t play anymore.’ If you’re going to establish a policy dealing with any sort of domestic violence, you need to maintain the line across all players on all teams. If they’re setting a standard, that has to be the way it is.”

A real-life “fixer” who likens her responsibilities to those of Scandal’s fictional heroine Olivia Pope, Vernon-Devlin has been involved in her share of crisis control over the years.

Previously the director of community information in Seminole County, Fla., Vernon-Devlin was trained in crisis communications at the office of emergency management and homeland security. Her current company was hired by Seminole County’s office of emergency management in the wake of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin scandal in 2012, so she’s certainly seen situations in serious need of some PR 101, and as far as she’s concerned, the NFL has gotten this case wrong from the start.

“From the get-go, they should have come clean that they knew about the video and that they saw all the video, and that this is not the image that the NFL wanted to project, and that they were going to cut him from the league,” Vernon-Devlin said, referring to Rice. “Letting it trickle out slowly that, ‘There may have been another video,’ or, ‘We might have been aware,’ is not the right standard.

If you tell the truth, you’ve got a lot less problems going down the road, because you’re being transparent at that point in time.

Susan Vernon-Devlin

“You have to come clean right from the beginning,” she added. “If you tell the truth, you’ve got a lot less problems going down the road, because you’re being transparent at that point in time.”

The NFL’s most critical mistake, Vernon-Devlin said, was assuming that the public would only care for so long while betting on Rice’s case being the only one — or at least the only one people would bat an eyelash for.

“If they had taken the hit up front and revealed everything, then maybe it would have passed over by now, but things trickle out and then, adding to the fray, there are child abuse charges coming out, too,” she said. “They relied on the fact that we have short attention spans and that everyone has 15 minutes of fame and then they move on.”

In another time and place, maybe that’s exactly what would have happened, but in 2014, no information is safe, and there’s always an angry mob on the internet looking for the next village to torch. It’s a level of blowback that Rice, the Ravens and the NFL should have anticipated, but didn’t — either a complete lapse on the part of those tasked with anticipating that kind of thing or a insulting underestimation of the collective conscience of the league’s fans.

“Now they have egg on their faces, where they’re constantly trying to wipe up the mess, and the mess is just getting worse and worse and more slippery and more slippery,” Vernon-Devlin said. “Other incidents are coming out now and they’ve realized that, in this age, where there are cameras everywhere and social media that people are going to talk and people are going to share. You can’t get away with it anymore. It just doesn’t happen.”

One of the greatest challenges the NFL faces in its efforts to save face in the public eye is the fact that money and profits are (perhaps accurately) thought by many to be the greatest motivator when it comes to getting the league to stop dragging its feet.

While the public has been clamoring for the NFL to set an example simply for the sake of doing the right thing from the onset, it wasn’t until some of the league’s most prominent sponsors — from Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi to McDonald’s and Visa — began admonishing the league for its domestic violence problem that a comprehensive plan began to take shape.

Even in cases where an organization truly is propelled by a genuine desire to right a wrong, companies tend to get flack for being motivated by the bottom line. So when Anheuser-Busch, which in 2011 signed a six-year sponsorship deal in excess of $1 billion has to become the catalyst for re-suspending a player who was just held out of a game after a child abuse arrest, it’s not a good look.

“There is not a way for you to make your decisions without it revealing your financial hand,” Vernon-Devlin said. “The bottom line is that they are looking to pay people good salaries to entertain the public, so they have to look at the sponsorships and determine if they’re going to take a financial hit if they do the wrong thing.

“…They do look like money-grubbers in that sense, but the end game here is to make sure that they keep the fanbase, because without the fans, there’s not going to be any gain.”

People are still watching football despite the NFL’s current perception problem, but there’s certainly a new focus on how the league responds to scandal, and if there’s not a sense among the watching public that the league is truly out to effect consistent and meaningful change, it’s possible the NFL may pay for its mishandling of the domestic violence saga in the long run.

“I think women and men are looking at the NFL differently because of the incidents that have happened,” Vernon-Devlin said. “You cannot put blinders on when you’re looking at a game where men crush each other, and then when they crush women say, ‘OK, that’s all right, too.’ It’s not all right. The NFL needs to really re-examine its policies as to whether these are acceptable things.

“… It’s a simple, basic ethical and moral compass that you’re working with there, and the NFL needs to really implement some standards that they can work with. People are going to watch football, but they’re going to think, every time they see a player, ‘Does he hit his wife? Does he hit his girlfriend? Does he hit his children?’”

They need to learn their lesson from this one and prepare better. … The NFL needs to learn from this and plan appropriately for the next incident, because it’s going to happen again, whether they plan for it or they don’t.

Susan Vernon-Devlin

At this point, it’s too late for the league to undo what has already been done, but if Roger Goodell continues to act swiftly with respect to discipline and shows more transparency going forward, and if the conglomerate that is the NFL can find a way to humanize itself by being more visible in the community with respect to cases of domestic violence, there’s a chance its reputation can be managed — if not saved — going forward.

Already, the NFL has toughened up on its domestic violence penalties, though they could perhaps still be tougher. And it’s become clear that an immediate deactivation — even if it’s a paid one — will be the standard response while the facts are gathered in future cases. The league has also hired a team of four female advisers to help craft the league’s domestic violence policy.

This is all a good start, but that’s all it is. And until the NFL has had a chance to put its new plan into action, we won’t know anything about what it’s learned from what has happened so far.

“If you’ve had a crisis once, then you’ve got to prepare to have it again, because your time is coming,” Vernon-Devlin said. “They need to learn their lesson from this one and prepare better. … The NFL needs to learn from this and plan appropriately for the next incident, because it’s going to happen again, whether they plan for it or they don’t.”

Unfortunately, if the last few weeks have been any indication, that next incident may strike sooner than later. Making an example of a few players won’t prevent the rest of them from acting out. So the league better get to studying its playbook now.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.