There is still a football game to be played, right? The national obsession with inflation levels of the New England Patriots’ footballs, and the presumed scandal contained therein, have reached epic levels of mockery and have made it feel unseemly to talk about the actual on-field match-up of Super Bowl XLIX. However, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that we have no idea what happened to the footballs or what caused the variance in pressure level readings.

 

Perhaps we will know these answers in the near future. However, right now, we are all operating with a currency of speculation and we are being led by our own assumptions and inherent biases. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is only if/when those personal beliefs are presented as fact or are used to assign immediate guilt or innocence that they lead to irresponsible reporting.

 

Its nearly 7 days before the 49th edition of the Superbowl and the media is still talking deflated footballs

Its nearly 7 days before the 49th edition of the Super Bowl and the media is still talking deflated footballs

Since the news of underinflated balls broke on Monday, most media outlets have utilized “expert” analysts to declare that the Patriots are cheaters and liars, an opinion to which they are certainly entitled. But those opinions have also been delivered without any presentation or consideration of the facts, most notably because a number of key facts are not available at this time. The 24-hour news cycle has created this enduring journalistic dilemma of being first vs. being right, and we are now seeing the danger of allowing the momentum and sensationalism of a story to perpetuate incomplete analysis and to assign factual value to gut-reaction statements.

 

This is a dizzying and frustrating story for everyone, with a lot of principal players involved. While this writer is ill-equipped to explain what happened to the footballs, he can react to actual items he has observed throughout this week, and can share his belief about what each entity should have done differently in their response to this issue.

 

Bill Belichick picture

Bill Belichick, head coach, New England Patriots (cbssports.com)

The Patriots: Establish Accountability

The most critical first step in responding to a PR crisis is to clearly establish a leading voice for an organization. This individual might not immediately have the answers, but he or she would hold themselves accountable for making things better. This is where the buck stops, and this is the person who fights every day to protect the product and the brand. This was the Patriots’ biggest misstep, as owner Robert Kraft remained silent until after his coach and quarterback were forced to answer questions in hostile, disorganized press conferences on Thursday.

 

As soon as the seriousness of these allegations became evident, Kraft should have delivered a statement and/or appeared on camera to declare that he believes in the integrity of the organization, and he is going to work with the NFL to figure out what happened. His failure to do so perpetuated the shroud of mystery surrounding his team, and more importantly, it left his biggest team ambassadors (Bill Belichick and Tom Brady) hanging out to dry.

 

The twin Thursday Belichick and Brady press conferences were a mockery. In a vacuum, Belichick struck the proper tone of sympathy and vulnerability, but it hinted that Brady was going to deliver more substantive information. If Brady was not in position to provide answers, then he never should have taken the podium in that type of uncontrolled setting. He should have delivered an opening statement that felt genuine, taken a few questions (the Patriots should have utilized a moderator for this), and then walked away, reiterating that he told everyone everything he knows.

 

By contrast, Belichick’s Saturday press conference was a defining “double down” moment that often provides the best resolution to a PR crisis. Once an organization has gathered the facts and is comfortable with what those facts represent, then it is imperative to showcase your good reputation, by reminding the public who you are and what you stand for. Bill and the Pats are a defiant group of individuals, who are proud of their record on the field and their approach off of it. They have heard enough from their critics, and they have told everyone that it is time to find another target. Knowing when and how to fight back is one of the biggest decisions you can make in a crisis.

 

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL

The NFL: Tell Us What You Think

The NFL’s silence was the other curious element of this ordeal, and it had the unintended result of fueling all kinds of speculation. It’s a tricky spot for the league, but, like Kraft, they also could have set the tone for the week by declaring whether the inflation of footballs, in a general sense, is actually a big deal or not. Most discussion has framed this as a referendum on the Patriots and a perceived long-standing culture of cheating. Judging by the NFL rulebook, however, the relatively low fine of $25,000 that is associated with tampering with game ball inflation would suggest that the NFL does not view this as big deal. Marshawn Lynch was just fined $20,000 for making a lewd gesture while scoring a touchdown – does that make him a cheater, since he’s a repeat offender of this violation? The NFL gave us no context for this issue, and the majority of NFL players acknowledge that nobody really cares about football inflation levels.

 

The news media ought to do their job

The news media ought to do their job

The Media: Do Your Job

To borrow a favorite rally cry of the Patriots, the media should do their job. If your core coverage of this story is predicated upon giving countless analysts a forum to say whether they think the Patriots are liars, then you are peddling in laziness. Exercising restraint should be lauded, rather than something that is interpreted as a weakness. After each of the Patriots press conferences, ESPN began its coverage with a series of “so, do you believe them?” inquiries to its analysts and reporters. It is symptomatic of the need for a rush to judgment, without a need to wait for the facts.

 

Andrew Luck, #12 of the Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck, #12 of the Indianapolis Colts

The Colts: Go Home

Blaming the whistleblower is a dangerous and reckless practice, but the Colts should be ashamed of themselves. Complaining about the ball inflation was a highly coordinated effort involving the leading members of the organization. Initial reports suggested that linebacker D’Qwell Jackson set this all in motion after intercepting a Brady pass and complaining about the air pressure. However, he emphatically denies this. This means that none of the actual players – the ones who should feel the most violated by an alleged rules infraction – were involved in this process. The Colts then leaked the story to the local media, seemingly validating that their sole intention was to perpetuate and amplify story that no one who played the game on the field actually cared about.

 

Needless to say, we would all love to put this behind us and be “on to Seattle,” to quote Belichick. Sunday’s Super Bowl is expected to be the most watched television program ever. Perhaps we might even get a chance to talk about the game a little bit before then.

 

What do you think? Let me know in the comments box below or tweet me @endbadly with your thoughts!