Crisis Management 101


This is really just a very preliminary draft…

Recent events involving major American football operations have provided the source material for a handy guide to crisis management by big-time sports entities. Drawing most immediately on the responses of the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers and the University of Michigan, here’s what we’ve learned:

1) never get out front of a controversial action. Always make sure that your first response is to downplay, poo-poo or otherwise dismiss criticisms.

1a) – spend a lot of time emphasizing the importance of “accountability’ even as you are obviously dodging it yourself. Bonus points for college coaches who, when facing any charges of misconduct, suddenly deny they are in any way responsible for what happens to the “student-athletes” under their charge.

1b) treat everyone else as if they are idiots, who can’t see, in the face of clear cut visual evidence, what seems blatantly obvious.

1b2) act as if your studied ignorance of the circumstances makes you look any better than if you were simply lying.

2) when you do decide to issue something approaching an actual apology, try to do so in written form sometime between midnight and 4am Eastern time (see Minnesota Vikings and University of Michigan).

3) when you do send some organizational leader in front of the cameras to face the music, make sure they act fecklessly. Remember, your goal here is to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions about you.

4) even while apologizing, attempt to continue to cover your ass. Michigan AD Dave Brandon illustrated this nicely in his apologia for the university’s disgraceful handling of QB Shane Morris’ injuries Saturday. Brandon’s statement acknowledged that Morris had, after all, sustained a “probable” concussion.

Here’s what ESPN had to say about that little sleight-of-hand:

The term “probable mild concussion” in Brandon’s statement is not a medical diagnosis that most neurologists would use, according to multiple doctors who spoke with on Tuesday.

Kelley Anderson, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said she couldn’t address Morris’ specific injury, but her team of doctors wouldn’t use the term probable.

“If he’s completed the evaluation, at that point you start to say it is or it isn’t,” Anderson said. “Our typical terminology we use is, ‘Do they have a concussion or not?'”

(see 1a above – under “accountability.”)

5) spend as much time as possible speaking in urgent terms about how you have to “get it right” and “must learn,” as if you’re committed to anything other than CYA (see 3).

6) keep talking about your organization’s “values,” as if everyone else doesn’t know you only have one. More specifically, keep talking about how concerned you are about matters which, it’s screamingly obvious, you didn’t care about at all until you started getting hammered for your negligence.

To repeat, only a preliminary sketch.

A Firing Offense? Part Deux

At shortly before one o’clock this morning, the University of Michigan issued a statement apologizing for its handling of Shane Morris’ injuries, including a shot to the head, on Saturday. Yesterday, at his disgraceful press conference, Brady Hoke said he would never endanger a player’s safety, nor would he ever put a player back in the game who he thought had suffered a head injury. It turns out that Morris did, indeed, suffer a “mild” concussion, in addition to the leg injuries that had already clearly compromised his mobility. Athletic Director Dave Brandon acknowledged multiple breakdowns in communication between coaches and medical staff and vowed that new protocols would ensure that such mistakes never happened again.

I’m not going to parse the whole statement, which came from Athletic Director Dave Brandon, but this is noteworthy:

“However, the neurologist, with expertise in detecting signs of concussion, saw Shane stumble and determined he needed to head down the sideline to evaluate Shane…Shane came off the field after the following play and was reassessed by the head athletic trainer for the ankle injury. Since the athletic trainer had not seen the hit to the chin and was not aware that a neurological evaluation was necessary, he cleared Shane for one additional play.”

How the head athletic trainer could not be aware that a neurological evaluation was necessary seems unfathomable. Somehow, Michigan’s story seems to be, not a single member of the medical or coaching staff saw Morris take a shot to the head, notwithstanding that all eyes are typically on the quarterback through the release of the football. In addition, Cris Carter said this morning that, as a long-time high school football coach, he’d been in numerous trainings over the years to look for signs of head injury. One that he said was a sure sign was precisely the kind of stumble that 100,000 people witnessed Morris take on Saturday after the hit.

Unless Cris Carter is somehow making that up, or misremembering the training he went through, let’s be clear about what he said. Part-time *high* school football coaches are being trained to detect signs of head injury, but not a single coach or medical personnel member on a major college football program with among the largest budgets in the country could say the same?

This is one of those cases in which being unfathomably incompetent is not a better defense than being dishonest. Both are unacceptable.

And while I said months ago that we should all stop using the term “student-athlete,” since it’s nothing more than an organizational propaganda term, it’s especially sickening in this context. Highly recruited athletes to major football programs are not brought to campus to be students. They are brought to campus to feed the football beast. Please just stop pretending otherwise.

And one more thing – Coach Hoke, the leader of men and teacher of accountability, basically spent 48 hours communicating one thing over and over again; whatever happened on the field is someone else’s responsibility: the player’s, the medical staff. Anyone’s but me.

A firing offense?

I mentioned on Friday that I would return to the Simmons suspension this week. Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky has written a pretty comprehensively reported piece on it and I don’t have any pertinent details to add. My overall reaction to the piece and what’s at stake in it is too shrug my shoulders. Simmons has had multiple run-ins with the ESPN brass before. He’s become an extremely profitable brand and has, it would appear, developed the ego to match. It seems silly that a guy would be suspended for what is, by the World Wide Leader’s standards, a quite-lengthy suspension, for having cursed on a podcast.  It’s also quite obvious that Simmons was itching for a confrontation with his employer. Maybe he’s frustrated by the network’s coverage of Goodell. Maybe he wants to move on. Maybe he just felt like he needed a vacation.

Regardless, it continues to be remarkable, at least to me, that using foul language or making gestures indicative of such language, raises so many hackles in our culture, when other much more obviously grotesque behavior and depictions constitute the media air we breathe.

The misplaced alarm and sense of decorum, when it comes to sports, reaches its apotheosis in football, a brutally violent game the playing of which, the accumulating evidence suggests, is resulting in severe long term damage on massive scale to its participants. On Saturday, in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Wolverines continued what is surely the death spiral of the Brady Hoke era with a dismal 30-14 loss to Minnesota.

But as numerous commentators have pointed out, the disgrace of note wasn’t the play of the Wolverines: it was the conduct of Michigan’s medical and coaching staffs. Sophomore Shane Morris started the game at QB, replacing the struggling senior signal-caller, Devin Garder. Morris did not have a good game, and hurt his leg during the second half. A short time later, he took another shot and got up limping. At that point, as the Ann Arbor News’ Nick Baumgardner recounted, ESPN color commentator Ed Cunningham said, “At this point, just for the safety of the player, I think you have to get Devin Gardner in there…I know you want to get the guy experience … but it seems a little dangerous to me.”

Then things get worse. Minnesota’s Theiran Cockran launches himself at Morris’ head on a subsequent pass play, hitting Morris in the head with his own helmet and leveling him. You can see from the video Deadspin posted that Morris is both limping and almost certainly woozy from the shot to the head. At one point, he slumps into the arms of his teammate, tackle Ben Braden. But inexplicably, he does not come out of the game. At that point, Cunningham and play-by-play man Mike Patrick were incensed:







Michigan released a statement after the game insisting that they only follow the highest standards in caring for player safety, blah, blah, blah. That’s a joke, under the circumstances. Hoke said he didn’t see Morris limping or wobbly after the play, which strikes most people as about as truthful as Roger Goodell’s claim that he had no idea what was in the Ray Rice elevator tape until a couple of weeks ago.

But perhaps most disgraceful of all was this statement from Hoke: “Shane’s a pretty competitive, tough kid. Shane wanted to be the quarterback. Believe me, if he didn’t want to be, he would’ve come to the sideline, or stayed down.” Football coaches talk all the time about “accountability,” a generally meaningless word in sports parlance, but one that is suppose to convey the idea that people will be held responsible for their behavior. They also talk all the time about how they’re the leaders of men, the molders of character and, most fundamentally, the boss. Even if it’s true that a 20-year old kid wants to go back in the game, the coach’s responsibility is crystal clear – you don’t put players in positions in which their ability to perform is compromised. Mike Shanahan trotted out this same bullshit when he left an obviously wounded RGIII in against the Seahawks in the disgraceful 2013 playoff game that should have ended Shanahan’s career and may have ruined Griffin’s. But this conduct is that much more offensive coming from a college coach.

Brian, at Mgoblog, went off on Hoke and his staff today for their negligence and incompetence:

It does not matter whether Morris was concussed or not. What matters is that Shane Morris showed obvious signs of a concussion immediately after taking a wicked head shot and was permitted to stay in the game, then re-entered some 90 seconds after departing, well before any serious concussion check could be completed. The NFL’s process takes 8-12 minutes. The NHL requires players suspected to have sustained a concussion to be removed from the ice and taken to a quiet place for evaluation.

Michigan was flagrantly negligent about Shane Morris’s safety. Period.

And then they lied about it. To your face. Because they think you’re too fucking dumb to do anything about it.

I know the standards of conduct of a media organization do not parallel those of an athletic organization. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition suggests something fundamentally perverse. In one corner of the big-time sports eco-system, a guy paid to entertain merits a three-week suspension because he cussed on a podcast. And in another corner of that eco-system, a man paid large sums of money to be “accountable” for the college students under his charge fails one of them in the most fundamental way he can, apparently without consequence?

To-do list

1) When I am fully back on line Monday, I will check in on the Simmons suspension. I haven’t read any other commentary at all as of now. But having listened to the clip, it sure seems like he was – Costanza-like – begging to get in hot water with his employer. Makes me wonder whether he’s got some significant deal brewing with another entity – Yahoo? An independently wealthy so-and-so?  This qualifies, it should be noted, as entirely uninformed speculation. But it’s the first thing I thought of when I heard him go off.

2) The latest report about the inside-the-elevator video is drawing evermore farcical responses from the NFL. Leaving aside for now the question of who at NFL headquarters did and didn’t see the tape, one question seems not to have been asked. Namely – who in the building *asked* for the tape? Is the NFL really going to contend that someone sent the tape to league headquarters unsolicited? That would be a preposterous claim on their part. *Someone* in the building requested a copy and it strains plausibility to claim that it was some low-level flunky.

3) I heard Cowherd say this morning that Jeter *always* came through in the clutch. This is a manifestly silly thing to say. Legends are made, in part, by a selective re-tellng of their deeds. There’s little doubt that Jetes was a particular beneficiary of that aspect of his myth-making. That doesn’t contradict what I said last night – that fans remember moments and Jeter provided a lot of them.

More Jeter

My computer has been undergoing repairs this week, hence the light blogging. I will be fully back online as of Monday. Since Jeter just capped his career at Yankee Stadium with, dare I say, a Jeterian denouement, I wanted to comment on Keith Olbermann’s much-discussed rant.

In a way, what Olbermann’s is saying shouldn’t be as controversial as it is. He didn’t say Jeter sucked. Indeed, KO deemed The Captain Hall-of-Fame worthy. You can be both a very good player *and* overrated. It’s on this already pretty narrow sliver of rhetorical real estate that Olbermann was setting up shop. He went after Jeter’s defense. Join the club. He said that, at this point in his career, Jeter’s a bad player. No serious argument there.

Virtually every adherent to performance-based analysis of baseball players – broadly speaking, the sabermetric community – thinks Jeter is overrated. Which raises the question – once everyone thinks you’re overrated, can you still qualify as overrated?

It’s true that the average fan probably thinks less about WAR, OBA, OPS+ and FRAR and such than do the Olbermanns (or Weilers) of the world. But that’s OK. Not everyone needs to have their experience of sports mediated through advanced statistics (my view of folks who cover sports for a living but ignore serious research on player performance is, of course, not so charitable).

If Olbermann is, by implication, directing his criticism of Jeter at the baseball media, it’s fair to argue that they spend too much time focusing on intangibles and on things like whether a player answers a reporter’s questions politely than perhaps they should. But Olbermann was vague in identifying the group that gives Jeter too much credit for his play on the field. He started his Jeter broadside with a pretty egregious straw man. He showed Jorge Posada calling Jeter the best Yankee ever, “for me.” Posada, of course, was Jeter’s best friend on the team for many years. Teammates tend to stand up for one another. If Posada’s opinion is supposed to be a stand in for the sporting public, or the sports media, that’s pretty weak. Anecdotally, anyway, I’ve heard a lot of sports commentators weigh in on Jeter this week and *none* of them said Jeter was the best Yankee ever. The most charitable said he was perhaps a top-5 Yankee. Plenty of others doubted whether he was in the top ten. And these were folks who all think very highly of No. 2.

In February, ESPN’s David Schoenfield tackled the question of whether Jeter is overrated by concluding that he might be both overrated and underrated. Olbermann gave no weight in his musings to Jeter’s signature moments. If you’re a general manager trying to construct an all-time team to compete in a league of immortals, perhaps that makes sense. But to return to an earlier point, it’s not how most fans experience sports. Olbermann is right that Jeter’s post-season career is heavily skewed to his early career. He’s only one won ring since 2000. Most of his big post-season moments – including the “flip” – happened a long time ago. But those moments are the things fans remember, the heart of what makes sports feel meaningful to people.

How much “credit” should Jeter get for how he  comported himself on and off the field, how he apparently kept his nose and his veins clean through a twenty year period in which lots of athletes ran into trouble with the law and so many baseball stars in particular used banned substances to boost their performances? I don’t know. There’s no accounting for taste, as they say. But in that vein, at a certain point it’s silly to try to tell people why they shouldn’t have found so much joy in watching a guy play baseball for as long as Jeter did. In a hard-to-define, but hard-to-deny way, he gave the fans their money’s worth, year after year. OK, so Jim Thome and Adrian Beltre are higher on the WAR list. That’s a fit topic for things like Hall of Fame voting, and roster construction and so on. And I do think Olbermann’s is strongest in criticizing Jeter (and the franchise) for his having batting second all year in 2014, when he’s now a marginal major league hitter. This is especially true when the Yankees were facing an uphill climb to secure a playoff spot for much of the season and needed to wring every run they could out of an offensively-challenged team.

But mostly what I hear people saying about Jeter, with some exceptions, is that they just loved watching the guy play. So sue them. For most folks, what else is sports for?

Odds and ends

1) I couldn’t help but be amused by Florida State’s explanation for why it extended Jameis Winston’s suspension from a half to a game this weekend. According to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, FSU’s “continuing investigation” revealed that Winston had not been truthful in his original account of the incident last week that merited the suspension. This, FSU announced, caused the university to increase the penalty.

In journalism schools, as I understand it, this is what is known as “a total crock of shit.” FSU would apparently have us believe that in Winston’s initial telling, the university understood only that Winston called for affectionate hugging of members of the opposite sex. And also that the university wasn’t independently aware of what happened based on the approximately seven million tweets from witnesses to Winston’s shenanigans.

Quite appropriately, the original 30-minute suspension was widely mocked and derided as a complete joke. Once it became apparent to the university how badly that punishment was playing in the suddenly highly relevant court of public opinion, FSU changed the suspension. Why it had to come up with BS for having done so remains unclear.

2) ESPN’s report on the Baltimore Ravens’ campaign to misrepresent Ray Rice’s attack on his now wife, Janay Rice, is damning. It makes a compelling case that the organization knew within hours of the attack more or less exactly what transpired and for reasons ranging from their concern with Rice’s playing status to his role as key pitchman for an important Ravens sponsor, they lied. And then once the truth became irrefutable, they lied again.

Ravens’ officials will be speaking today to answer those charges. Good luck to ‘em.

3) Is the new Derek Jeter commercial a feel-good affair, or emblematic of a fraud?  I have to punt on answering that for now, but I’ll come back to it. I will say this – the lionization of Jeter itself reflects very basic problems with the way the sports world evaluates character. I don’t think Jeter is a manifestly bad guy at all. He’s very rich, no doubt lives in a very insular world – which the commercial inadvertently highlights – and bears the marks of someone whose life is so defined by material attainment. In other words, the problem with the commercial, for those who think it problematic, has less to do with Jeter specifically than with celebrity culture and what tends to get valued among public figures. In some ways, this isn’t new. Adam Smith was writing about this stuff over 250 years ago.

We Grow

(with apologies to Tyler Stenson).

Matt Bai, the prominent political journalist, has a forthcoming book about the Gary Hart/Donna Rice scandal that, in 1987,  torpedoed Hart’s presidential ambitions and, in Bai’s account, changed the nature of American politics. Political coverage and tabloid news converged. According to Bai, we’ve never been the same.

In his Sunday Times magazine excerpt from the book, Bai writes that philandering by politicians was a long-standing practice. Among the more devoted practitioners were LBJ, JFK and FDR (beware of presidents known by three initials!). Before the 1980s, sleeping around was not considered a matter fit for public concern and political journalists who were aware of such peccadilloes kept it to themselves. But for a variety of reasons, Hart was caught flat-footed by a changing norm. His conviction that what he did behind closed doors was not anyone’s business reflected Hart’s belief that the old rules still applied. He had the misfortune of being caught behind the curve.

Michael Oriard’s terrific book, Bowled Over, about the evolution of college football from the 1960s to the BCS era, is chock full of interesting instances of the phenomenon of changing norms and how things looked prior to those changes. To take one of many examples, in 1967 Sports Illustrated interviewed UTEP athletic director George McCarty. UTEP, formerly Texas Western, had made basketball history the previous year by fielding the first all-black starting five to win a NCAA men’s division one basketball championship. So what did the the AD who presided over this landmark in collegiate athletics think of black athletes: according to Oriard, he told Sports Illustrated that “the success of the ‘n—-r athlete’ in college sports” was attributable to the fact that he was “a little hungrier” than the white athlete. And, McCarty continued, at UTEP, “we have been blessed with having some real outstanding ones.”

By the way, while coaching Texas Western’s basketball team in the late 1950s, McCarty recruited the school’s first back player. McCarty, as far as I am aware, continued on as UTEP AD for three years after the SI interview without any clamor for him to lose his job.

By 1987, when the generally very well regarded Al Campanis, then general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, told Nightline’s Ted Koppel that the reason there was an absence of African Americans in Major League front offices was because they lacked the “necessities” for such jobs, norms had changed. Campanis, a baseball lifer who’d befriended Jackie Robinson when the two played together on the 1947 Dodgers, lost his job immediately.

Ten years ago, it took significant political courage to come out in favor of gay marriage. The 2004 Democratic nominee for President, John Kerry, favored civil unions (as did President George W. Bush), but opposed marriage equality. When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, that was, more or less, his position as well, and he continued famously to “evolve” on the issue for several more years after that.  In 2004, by a 2-1 margin, Americans opposed gay marriage. Now, a solid majority favor it.

One could, of course, come up with countless other examples. The entirety of the show Mad Men is a testimonial to such dynamics.

The kinds of crap that Richie Incognito and other teammates subjected Jonathan Martin to in 2012 and 2013 were once nothing more than “boys being boys.” Sorry, times change. Ditto the Washington NFL team’s nickname.

The recent explosion in public debate about violence against women and, in recent days, child abuse, were certainly catalyzed by video and graphic photos. As many have pointed out, the evidence suggests that it is not true that NFL players are more prone to these and other violent and criminal behavior than are younger men more generally. Quite the contrary. And in the case of violence against women, it’s only speculation to suggest that the recent attention will result in a reduced incidence of such crimes (there is evidence that rates of intimate partner violence have been dropping in recent years).

Some norms evolve slowly. Others more quickly. The NFL isn’t responsible for the continuing epidemic of violence against women, nor is it responsible for the prevalence of what, in my view, ought to be legally unacceptable abuse of children, regardless of whether their parents think it’s good for them. But that the NFL is being caught flat-footed right now because it has responded too slowly to an ever-altering landscape of social acceptability isn’t something for the league or its defenders to complain about. It comes with the territory of being an especially high profile social space in a rapidly changing world.