I See Your Long Hair Flying When You Run …

April 8, 2008

OK, I know Bob Seger didn’t have Joshua Cribbs or Troy Polamalu in mind when he wrote those lyrics for “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” But watching the Browns’ punt returner (Cribbs) and the Steelers’ safety (Polamalu) really brings those words to life.

Last week at the NFL owners’ meetings in Palm Springs, Florida, the assembled brass briefly considered quashing that image to improve the league’s overall image. As they considered such ethical issues as illegal taping and whistleblower provisions to protect anyone reporting illegal activity in the NFL, they discussed another weighty issue: hair. That’s right. Taking a page from the NBA’s handbook, the NFL now wants to ramp up its own image.

Never mind dogfighting, gambling, domestic abuse, and illegal drugs — and, granted, Commissioner Goodell has taken a hard stance against wayward players. But hair? Maybe it bothers me just because it is being framed as an image issue and not a safety concern.

That’s where good public relations comes in. Know how to frame your issue to get the most support. I cringe every time I think of one of my favorite players, Cribbs, getting yanked down by his hair by some mean, nasty Steeler (sorry, Bill). I think hair being used as a take-down tool is a big safety concern. So why isn’t it framed like that rather than an image issue?

I personally think Cribbs and Polamalu look kind of cute with all that hair. Yep, I said it. Even a mean, nasty Steeler can look cute (kinda). But I am concerned for their safety and well-being. Herm Edwards, the Chief’s head coach, was at the forefront of this long-hair-image-issue last week. Edwards said he was raised in a military home where rules and image were important. I have no problem with that.

But frame this issue for what it should be — a safety concern. I think the NFL, who delayed action on the issue until meeting with the players’ union later this year, would get more support for that position.


I.O.U. or U.O.ME?

March 10, 2008

Following an event during a recent Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend in Canton, I spoke for a while with a member of the HOF’s board of directors.  We compared notes on which Hall of Famers had returned for the annual festivities — the Hall has begun a tradition of inviting all back each year — and discussed why some inductees don’t return. 

This board member felt strongly that those non-returnees were showing a lack of gratitude to the NFL and the Hall by their absence.  He felt they “owed” both institutions because these players wouldn’t be everything they are and have everything they do if it weren’t for pro football.   

I am a huge football fan.  My dad started taking me to Browns and Hall of Fame games when I was still in elementary school — and that’s been a while, but we won’t go there.  Anyway, as much as I love pro football, I am not a fan of everything the NFL does, especially the way it has handled, or mishandled, the retired players’ pension issues.  Talk about owing someone something –who actually built the NFL into the sports powerhouse it is today?  The players maybe?  The NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) should show the same loyalty to those pioneers as the HOF board member thinks the players should show the NFL. 

The players who honor their induction into the Hall of Fame by returning are really honoring those who came before them, those who played with them, and the game itself.  And those are the real reasons they should return to Canton each year.   But I agree it would be nice to see more Hall of Famers come back.  Maybe when the NFL starts treating its former players with some respect and compassion, they will return the favor.   

Culture Shock

March 4, 2008

As a former employee of the federal government and of numerous presidential and congressional campaigns, I understand what politically correct means — especially in the sense of being respectful of cultural customs and behaviors.  But respect the practice of cockfighting because it’s part of someone else’s culture?  I don’t think so.

ESPN’s Stuart Scott has a column, “Two Way,” in ESPN The Magazine.  Readers are invited to share their thoughts on sports issues.  In the March 10, 2008, issue, Wes from Atlanta expressed his disappointment that some Dominican major league baseball players have been linked to cockfighting.  Scott responded that he didn’t like it either, but Americans risk being thought of as arrogant if we “expect or believe they shouldn’t do it.”  Scott suggested that because cockfighting is part of the Dominican culture, Americans “should respect that.”

Really?  Does that mean we should also respect child labor, stonings, female circumcision, and slavery?  In some parts of the world, these abuses are considered “cultural.”  I know, these are gross human rights abuses, and Scott is talking about animal abuse, but for a lot of us out there, any abuse of a living thing is condemnable.  But I guess Stuart Scott thinks we should all  just keep our mouths shut.  I mean, we don’t want anyone to think we’re arrogant or anything.

 In the same issue, columnist Junot Diaz writes about cockfighting as well, from the standpoint of a Dominican.  He calls it cruel, inhumane and a way of life there.  He also points out the inconsistencies in the U.S. with our poultry industry.  True, and those issues are being addressed and will hopefully result in more humane treatment of animals used for food marketing.  But we are talking sport.  Most people would be horrified if they visited an animal processing plant.  They surely wouldn’t be enjoying it as a sport. 

I understand that Scott wants to be respectful of other cultures.  There were some who thought Michael Vick’s dogfighting exploits were cultural.  But, if we can’t speak out against such “cultural” practices, aren’t we in a way condoning them?  At the very least, wouldn’t initiating an open dialogue about such issues be a healthy exercise for all involved — especially the unfortunate animals?  Maybe some real change could be brought about. 

If I see or hear about something I consider to be cruel and inhumane in our culture or anyone else’s, I will say so.  Just call me arrogant.     


In Recognition of Black History Month

February 26, 2008

“… we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; …we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt; and … we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.” 

   African American astronomer Benjamin Banneker in a letter to Thomas Jefferson asking Jefferson to extend human liberties and rights to African Americans (1791).

“That was my time.  I was ready for it.  Every night, I stayed in and studied.  I wasn’t going to let them say black quarterbacks were dumb.” 

James Harris, one of the first black quarterbacks in the NFL, during an interview for the book, “Third and a Mile” (2007).

Two hundred and sixteen years separate those comments.  As we reflect on Black History Month, we can say that in some instances, we’ve come a short way, slowly.  How sad for us all — black, white, red, brown — that Banneker’s plea to Jefferson to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to [African Americans],” might still be made today.

But I don’t want to use this opportunity to dwell on what was and should never have been.  Rather, let’s celebrate what is and hopefully will be. 

What is?  Well, in 2007, Tony Dungy became the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.  This year, Mike Carey served as the first black referee in a Super Bowl.  In 1988, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.  All wonderful accomplishments and milestones, deserving of recognition.  Know what will be even better?  When those accomplishments are so commonplace, we won’t even notice. 

Organizations focused on the mission of furthering opportunities for minorities in the NFL provide promise for what will be.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance formed in 2003 as an affinity group of NFL minority coaches, scouts and front office personnel, works with the NFL to develop hiring guidelines and talent development programs.  Hall of Famer and former Giants linebacker, Harry Carson, is the current executive director.

Also, the league’s first five black quarterbacks — Harris, Williams, Marlin Briscoe, Vince Evans, and Hall of Famer Warren Moon– recently formed a nonprofit organization:  The Field Generals.  The group is dedicated to teaching and preserving the history of the African American quarterback.

Today, it is commonplace to see black quarterbacks on the field directing their teams, although there are still few black head coaches and general managers.  It has been a long time coming, and there is still much to work toward.  But progress has been made.

And Benjamin Banneker?  Not a football player of course, but if this is the first you’ve heard of him, take this opportunity to learn more.  Read his eloquent letter to Jefferson.  Unfortunately, you won’t be able to view much of his works and inventions.  On the day of his funeral in 1806, his home and all of its contents mysteriously burned to the ground.  




February 18, 2008

Flashback to 2005. Remember when the NBA instituted its new dress code and ushered in the dilemma every woman in America faces daily — what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear? It was developed to improve the NBA’s image. I think it worked.

Of course, for those of us in public relations, image is oh-so-important. My previousdud49421.jpg career was in politics, so I can attest to how important image is — and how difficult it can be to correct one. But the NBA has done a pretty good job.

The league, which many accused of acquiring a thug image in recent years, was in danger of losing corporate sponsorships and fans. So it rid itself of the chains, flip-flops, T-shirts, and sunglasses (indoors). Players seem to have embraced the code, competing with one another on who can look more dapper. LeBron, who just collected an NBA All-Star trophy again last night, has had no problem with it. Jermaine O’Neal promised to be one of the league’s best-dressed and, by all accounts, has succeeded. Even two of the NBA’s “bad boys” — Allen Iverson and Ron Artest — have coped with the less-than-cumbersome rules. Iverson didn’t like the rules (or practice, if you remember), but Artest vowed to have some fun with them, like purple shoes with yellow dress pants and such. Who says proper business attire can’t be fun?

MJMichael Jordan probably set the standard for presenting an impeccable, professional image. Gracing the cover of “ESPN The Magazine,” (Feb. 25, 2008 edition), Jordan says the NBA doesn’t currently have an image problem. He does, however, say that kids shouldn’t come into the league until they are 21 and possess (hopefully) better judgment, which I agree with. But that is another issue.

Jordan argues for genuineness in the league, and urges it to find the right mix between corporate and street to accommodate today’s players. He wants the NBA to allow them to be who they are, and not to try to remake them in the Jordan or Magic images. David Stern may not embrace that, but LeBron and Dwight Howard, and of course Iverson, will appreciate it.

While I don’t disagree with Jordan that a “correct” mix of corporate and street can work, I also know that Stern has to look at the bottom line. Professional basketball is big business and projecting a professional image — and one that is accepted by the majority of its fans and supporters — is important to its continued success. The players are professionals and, whether they like it or not, role models who present the NBA’s image to the rest of the world. They seem to be doing a pretty good job of it right now.


February 5, 2008

pro-football-hall-of-fame.jpgOn the Saturday before each Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announces its selections for induction into the NFL’s most exclusive fraternity. This year, six accomplished and deserving athletes were honored. Noticeably missing from the list, however, was newly eligible wide receiver, Cris Carter. A former Ohio State Buckeye who moved through the professional ranks with the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins, Carter ranks second on the all-time receptions list. He was considered by many to be an automatic first-ballot selection.

But he wasn’t.

Now the buzz among many fans and sportswriters is that Carter’s off-the-field problems kept him from being a first-time inductee. Carter was suspended by OSU for a rules violation that led to his loss of eligibility for his senior year and his pleading guilty to defrauding OSU in an agent scandal. In his early pro career, Carter battled alcohol and drug addictions. But he has used his football fame to become an inspirational speaker counseling kids to stay away from alcohol and drugs. He also has remained active in football as a member of the HBO “Inside the NFL” broadcast team. Carter has not been the victim of bad press.

This same buzz was heard when receiver Michael Irvin, the “Playmaker” for the Dallas Cowboys, was left out of the line-up in his first year of HOF eligibility. Irvin’s much-publicized issues with drugs and women did little to make him a role model, but he made the cut in 2007 and is now permanently enshrined in Canton. As an ESPN analyst at the time, having the huge sports network advocate for him on the air couldn’t have hurt.

And then there is Lawrence Taylor who, even with his multiple and memorable off-the-field escapades, was inducted in his first year of eligibility in 1999. Considered to have redefined the outside linebacker position, Taylor put it all out there in his book, “LT: Over the Edge: Tackling Quarterbacks, Drugs, and a World Beyond Football.” While the book wasn’t published until 2004, five years after his induction, Taylor’s free-wheeling reputation was hardly a secret. Still, HOF voters recognized his on-the-field talent and rewarded him with a place in the Hall.

Five of the six players in this year’s class have waited years to be inducted. Class of 2008 member, Art Monk, has led an exemplary life on and off the field but waited nine years for the honor. Maybe some really good PR would have made the wait shorter for him, but in the end, his talent got him in.

Carter will be inducted into the HOF. History and bad press are not the culprits for his being left out this year. Like Monk, Carter’s talent will get him in.

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