The NFL’s Troubled Optics

The world was treated to a yet another NFL public relations melodrama last week after it became clear that the footballs used by the New England Patriots’ offense in the AFC Championship Game win over the Indianapolis Colts had been severely underinflated.

This current “scandal” is pretty mild by NFL standards, even if the allegations against the Patriots are true. A quarterback accused of cheating in a game pales compared to the charges against Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. But the optics of the story—how the NFL has been covered in the news and the myriad dissections of the story—could not be worse. Even though it’s just about a game, the NFL clearly doesn’t have its house in order.

Even people who don’t watch much football—like me—are paying attention to “DeflateGate” just before the NFL’s most important Sunday. Especially when the story moves ISIS from the lead story and crosses from ESPN to Good Morning America as a bellicose football coach and a future hall of fame quarterback give multiple press conferences.

The NFL has been stumbling over itself since this story broke by a leak from within the league. That was mistake number one. Better to announce any charges before the reporters are knocking on your door.

Once the story gets out, though, the worst thing to do is wait to respond. The most important thing to do in any crisis situation is to get ahead of the story. The NFL missed a huge opportunity last week. They could have gotten in front of the media and relayed the facts, told the truth, and explained what they were doing to address the problem. Instead, the league kept their mouths shut and opened the door for reporters to seek out other quarterbacks and celebrities—and even Joe Biden—to get the basic facts of the story.

Of course, in a crisis situation, not all of the relevant information may be known immediately. There is skill involved in managing that period of uncertainty to tamp down media speculation—while resolving it as quickly as possible. But once you know all the facts, your best solution will always be to get them out there and address the impacts honestly.

But the Patriots apparently know a thing or two about PR. They smoothly got in front of the story. First there was a press conference with Pats coach Belichick, where he set the tone of denial for the whole week. Then, Tom Brady got up and played the innocent star quarterback, just doing his job. Brady also put the league in check by saying they hadn’t reached out to him in their investigation. If the league isn’t taking its own investigation seriously, why should anyone else?

When the NFL finally did make an announcement, they gave no information about anything important. They just reiterated that their investigation was ongoing. The NFL is clearly in a tight spot. One of the most popular quarterbacks in the league is accused of cheating. It’s hard to carry out an unbiased investigation of a certified football hero right before the biggest game of the season. Which is why the NFL won’t release their findings until after the Super Bowl, when the facts really won’t matter.

Perhaps the NFL is allowing the season to finish up before they really start to punish the Patriots, for DeflateGate, for SpyGate, and any other “gate” that may occur. Maybe they think the whole situation will eventually blow over and be forgotten in the growing pile of scandals. One thing is certain: If the NFL wants to be known as a slow, careless and leaky-bucket organization, they are doing everything right.

Christian Pinkston is the founder and president of Pinkston, Inc.