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Early on in President Trump’s administration, we, like many others, commented on the challenge companies and organizations face in having to respond to his wrath — Twitter or otherwise. This past week, it was the National Football League and its teams’ turn. The variety of their reactions, as detailed in their statements, is instructive to ponder from a crisis-communications point of view.
A handful of players had been kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and racism, causing a major backlash. During a rally on Friday, Sept. 22 and in weekend tweets, Trump declared that players who don’t stand for the anthem should be fired and that people should walk out of the stadiums over the protests.
This was an assault on the players, the league, and the teams, and it called for a response. That response was reportedly planned (somewhat and hastily), with the NFL as a go-between for the teams to learn what their competitors were doing.
In the end, more than 150 players, coaches, owners, and managers participated on Sunday and Monday by kneeling either before or during the anthem, by standing with locked arms, or by sitting out the song altogether and remaining in the locker room.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said the planning and demonstrations showed that the league, owners, players, and players union could, in The Washington Post’s words, “work cooperatively in a crisis.”
Nearly every team issued a statement (some, such as the Dallas Cowboys, seem to have only commented in press conferences). Some of the responses came as early as the day after Trump’s rally, some as late as this Tuesday morning (Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II).
What to say posed a challenge because many fans have criticized the protests to the point that they said they have stopped attending or watching the games. And, of course, dealing with Trump is always sensitive; we’ve written about that before in terms of responding to his tweets and his travel ban. Also, some owners donated to Trump’s campaign.
Some statements were direct in their response to the president’s comments. Others were more evasive; the owners of the Los Angeles Chargers and the Jacksonville Jaguars said only that they agreed with the statement issued Saturday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who, without mentioning Trump, said, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” (After Sunday’s game, Jaguars owner Shad Khan commented more fully.)
Some of the most forceful reactions came early on. “It’s unfortunate that the president decided to use his immense platform to make divisive and offensive statements about our players and the NFL,” Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy wrote. New York Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch: “Comments like we heard last night from the president are inappropriate, offensive, and divisive.”
Many teams praised their players and their charitable work, and some said outright that the owners or managers supported their right to free speech. “We respect their demonstration and support them 100 percent,” tweeted Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.
“Every day I see the genuine dedication and hard work of our players,” said Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. “And I support them as they take their courage, character, and commitment into our communities to make them better or to call attention to injustice. Having spoken with our players, I can attest to the great respect they have for our national anthem and all it represents.”
Some sought to comment on the situation while barely touching the hot-button issue of the actual protests. The press release issued by New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick (famous for his vagueness) was particularly evasive. None of the team statements mentions the word racism or race, other than the New Orleans Saints saying the team serves its community “without care of race, creed, or sexual orientation.”
Of course, individual players and their union also responded to Trump’s attack and much more bluntly than the teams.
Eric Winston, free-agent offensive tackle just released from the Cincinnati Bengals and current president of the NFL Players Association, called Trump’s comments “a slap in the face to the civil rights heroes of the past and present, soldiers who have spilled blood in countless wars to uphold the values of this great nation, and American people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations who seek civil progress as a means to make this country, and this world, a better place.”
Now, that’s a protest.
— Thom Weidlich
Photo Credit: Green Bay Packers
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