One of Roger Goodell's favorite phrases since taking over as NFL commissioner in 2006 is "protecting the shield." The head of the league with $9 billion in annual revenues invokes the words as a reminder the league's red, white and blue logo is bigger than any player, coach or problem.
But the image promoted by the $44-million commissioner is faltering, experts in crisis communication say, as the NFL struggles to contain the damage from the video recording of Ray Rice slugging his then-fiancee.
While the league's public relations machine under Goodell has successfully blunted questions about brain injuries suffered by players, the fallout from a murder-suicide and the lockout of referees, questions about the handling of the Rice imbroglio and domestic violence have only grown.
"It's easier for me to list what they've done right, which is nothing," said Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications, whose experience in crisis communication includes Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. "I would say some heads should roll. The only question is whether it will be Roger Goodell's head, but that probably won't happen because he's made a lot of money for NFL owners."
The latest twist came Wednesday when the Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official sent the video of Rice's punch to an NFL executive in April. Goodell said Tuesday that no one at the league, including the league's security unit, had seen the video before its release by the TMZ website earlier this week.
That sparked a #FireGoodell hashtag on Twitter amid calls for the commissioner's resignation.
"They have a very unpleasant choice here: They either look dishonest or incompetent," said Larry Kamer, principal of the Kamer Consulting Group whose past clients include the San Francisco 49ers. "Neither one is helpful."
The experts who spoke with The Times see two major problems the NFL needs to fix: the original Rice situation, where Goodell first suspended him for two games then extended that indefinitely after the video's release, and the perception of a cover-up.
"It's like people are smelling blood," said Ira Kalb, an assistant professor at USC's Marshall School of Business whose expertise includes crisis management and image damage. "They want to take this further because the video is so graphic."
If the NFL is to regain the initiative, speed and honesty are key. There is an opportunity to change the narrative, but it won't be easy.
"This is not public relations 101," Fink said. "This is really sophisticated stuff. If you're not on your game, you're going to get killed. I'm sure the NFL thought, 'We can handle this.' No. No, they can't handle it."
To start, Fink suggests a highly-publicized campaign against domestic abuse that includes sensitivity training for all players to combat what he believes is a serious image problem.
Kamer sees two tracks. First, he thinks Goodell should take public responsibility, put aside any blame or fault-finding for the moment, pledge to find out what really happened and make the information public, no matter the reflection on the league.
Beyond that, Kamer said, the NFL needs to establish an ongoing process — perhaps a task force and counseling programs to start — to address domestic violence by players.
"The one thing the NFL fears the most is being associated with thugs and criminals," Kamer said. "The NFL … wants to build an audience among women which makes this particular situation a genuine crisis for them."
Kalb agrees. Other cases of domestic violence by NFL players — including the arrests of Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy this year — make addressing the situation more complex than simply dealing with Rice's altercation.
While Kalb thought Goodell's response, particularly an interview with CBS television, before the Associated Press revelation came across as sincere, it's now overshadowed by questions of what the commissioner knew about the recording and when he knew it.
"It ran through my mind that if they find any evidence that they did know about this tape then it's going to look really bad," Kalb said.
That's what happened.