Q&A: Daniel Korschun on NFL Reputation Amid Cover-Up Allegations

When your business prides itself on integrity, what happens to your reputation when it’s found that you’re covering up the misdeeds of one of your members?

ESPN reported last week that the NFL allegedly helped the New England Patriots cover up the extent of accused cheating between 2000 and 2007. The report also said a recent attempt to suspend the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, was a “make-up call.”

The report claimed NFL employees destroyed evidence relating to the “Spygate” scandal in which the Patriots allegedly illegally taped the signals of other teams. Although the Patriots were punished, owners and coaches around the league reportedly harbored ill will because they felt the team was not punished strongly enough.

As such, the report said that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s recently handling of the Patriots’ alleged deflating of footballs used in games — dubbed “Deflategate —  was done to appease those upset for the Patriots’ preferential treatment.

The NFL is coming off a season in which off-field issues like domestic violence and concussions seemed to grab more headlines than the games themselves. The unraveling of an alleged cheating cover-up and payback was not what the league was hoping fans would have in mind heading into the first weekend of the season.

Tom Brady handing the football off during the 2014 season. Photo by Jack Newton (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdn/10563140515/).

LeBow College of Business’ Daniel Korschun, PhD, is an expert in brand and corporate reputation management and marketing strategy. He discussed with DrexelNow what these new issues mean for the NFL and how it might try to navigate itself out.

First, you went to school at Brandeis University and Boston University. Do you consider yourself a Patriots fan, or even a football fan?

I do follow football and have given comments to the Boston Globe and others on Deflategate, but I’m a hockey fan at heart. New Englanders will cringe, though, because my team is the Montreal Canadiens, the arch-rival of the Boston Bruins. 

“Spygate” has been in the headlines before, but the ESPN story has a lot of new allegations relating to a cover-up. Why did it take so long for this to be talked about?

Crises cannot be avoided in today’s business and sports world. The key for managers is how the organization responds when crises come up. Most people are remarkably willing to tolerate some mistakes as long as they believe that the organization is taking steps to correct any wrongdoing. The danger for Commissioner Goodell and the NFL is that this exposé suggests a pattern of behavior where teams are not given a level playing field.

What kind of a hit could the fans’ perception of the NFL take as a result of this?

First off, it’s important to consider what the league’s goals are now. They have a strong base of diehard fans. It’s hard to imagine these fans changing their viewing or purchasing habits at all based on this. Even in New England, these accusations may actually galvanize the most committed fans.

Where the trouble lies is in new fans. The league is trying to grow its audience both demographically and geographically. For example, they have been trying to gain more female and Latino fans. They are also trying to get new fans abroad, such as in Great Britain. These are the people who will be most affected by these scandals. If they don’t like what they see, they may decide that this league isn’t for them.

It doesn’t seem that advertisers have responded at all to these new allegations. Do you think it matters to them?

Unless we see some sort of outrage from fans, advertisers will likely continue on. You can bet that they are monitoring the situation closely, though, in case there is a new development that might lead to a sudden upswell. 

How can the NFL respond to these allegations that might restore some of its reputation?

I have three “rules” for restoring trust after a scandal or crisis like this.

First, act swiftly. It’s never too late to deal with a scandal. However, the longer one waits, the longer it takes to restore trust with the public.

Second, acknowledge mistakes and take responsibility.

Third, set a timetable with concrete steps to rectify any wrongdoing.

I’ll leave it to the readers to evaluate how well the league has satisfied these three things.

Many times in situations like this, an organization will make a change in leadership. Do you think replacing Goodell would help this situation? And do you think it’s likely?

Ultimately, the test is how well Goodell and others in the league are believed to be committed to responsible leadership. These new accusations are certainly damaging. I don’t anticipate this damaging relationships with its most rabid fans for now. But, at the fringes, the league may very well lose some ground to other leagues as a result.