As of this writing, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and John Clayton are reporting that the NFL’s regular referees have ended their lockout and will return to work tonight for the Thursday night matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. While Monday Night Football’s controversial outcome was certainly a catalyst in getting a deal done, there were a number of other factors that robbed the league and owners of significant leverage and forced them into a compromised position at the negotiating table.
With the regular refs making their much-anticipated return to work (with a few new perks in hand to boot), there’s no better time to play Thursday morning quarterback and examine some of the communications missteps that allowed public opinion to so one-sidedly turn against the league. Even with a number of compelling talking points on its side, the NFL was forced into fourth and long. Here’s how it all went down:
1. The NFL never assumed control of the narrative.
From the outset (preferably weeks before the season started), the NFL needed to aggressively educate fans, players, coaches, and the media as to the key sticking points that forced it to lock out the regular referees – nearly all of which provided ample justification for the league’s decision. Simply put, the NFL wanted a slate of full-time referees who could devote their professional lives to ensuring the highest-quality officiating. The referees wanted to keep their day jobs – and maintain retirement benefits that simply don’t exist for part-time employees in just about any other industry. In the end, the NFL didn’t work hard enough to communicate this point, which could have painted the regular referees as the ones holding the game hostage for perks that fall outside acceptable norms. As ironic as it may sound, the league had a chance, early on, to make the lockout about player safety rather than money. Better trained and younger referees would make for a safer NFL. Instead, the league and owners were silent and they ceded the safety message.
2. The league’s silence was perceived as arrogance.
With its stance fully articulated and its view of the heroes and villains established, the NFL could have then prepared fans, players, and coaches for the fact that games simply weren’t going to run as smoothly with replacement referees at the helm. Had the league taken this seemingly counterintuitive step, it would have been seen as prescient and in-touch when easily-anticipated issues related to player safety and “the integrity of the game” did arise. Instead, the league was reticent to address the issue and stubbornly insisted that the game and its players would not suffer. It even praised the replacements after a lackluster Week One performance. This had the opposite effect of making the NFL seem out-of-touch with on-filed reality and reinforced an already-dominant perception that the league believed fans would keep coming back, no matter how diluted its product and brand might become. Ultimately, the NFL’s silence and refusal to recognize the issue was perceived as arrogance whispered – and that rubbed stakeholders the wrong way.
3. Social media sentiment overwhelmed the NFL.
In the wake of Monday night’s debacle, the Twitter-sphere erupted with criticism from fans, players, and commentators who dubbed the controversial call “The Inaccurate Reception,” a “Fail Mary,” and “Conduct Detrimental to the League.” All the while, the league’s stance remained virtually absent from the conversation. Without prior conditioning of its marketplace with the steps outlined in points one and two, there was simply no way for the NFL to keep up with, or at least manage, a social media deluge that affixed the blame squarely on the league’s shoulders. There was no time to rally supportive and influential third-parties and no chance to reverse an overwhelmingly negative tide of sentiment. In the age of social media, proactive and preventative communications are the only way to ensure a story doesn’t spin beyond an organization’s control when trouble arises. The NFL didn’t do the legwork up front. As such, it was caught-flat footed at the moment of truth.
4. Where were the owners’ moderate, trusted voices?
Throughout the entire dispute, the league’s key spokespeople were incendiary and controversial figures such as Commissioner Roger Godell and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Where were the more widely-respected, moderate voices of the Mara and Rooney families? Where were the statements of solidarity among all 32 NFL owners? With all the controversy that has dogged the NFL in recent years, the messengers were as important as the message in this latest public relations ordeal. The faces of the NFL’s argument lacked the credibility needed to sway public opinion. Ultimately, the NFL paid a price for that decision.
5. The regular refs never feared losing their jobs.
In many labor disputes, it is important that management articulate that it won’t allow labor to hold the organization over a barrel forever – and referee lockout was no different. Not once did the NFL articulate an acceptable contingency plan in the event that a settlement could not be reached and not once did it communicate that a “Ronald-Reagan-air-traffic-controllers” option was on the table. In the end, that allowed the regular referees to simply sit tight and watch as officiating mistake after officiating mistake reached critical mass and forced the NFL to meet at least some their most important demands.
Some may think that the NFL lost its leverage when the call heard round the world was made on Monday night. The reality is that its position was weakened long before the replacements ever took the field. Because the NFL didn’t communicate as aggressively as it could have, it was in fourth and long before it ever got the ball.
Jason Maloni is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and Chair of the firm’s Litigation Practice. He is also a contributing author to LEVICK Daily.