In the post-Ray Rice era, NFL teams are learning something that public relations crisis consultants have known for a while: act decisively and act quickly.
But in recent months, they appear to be moving toward a new strategy when it comes to bad off-the-field behavior: cut and run, the faster the better.
In March, the Baltimore Ravens—who were criticized for their handling of the Rice incident—cut running back Bernard Pierce just hours after he was charged with drunk driving.
And in May the Chicago Bears cut Ray McDonald following the defensive lineman’s domestic violence arrest. This was the second time since December that McDonald was cut following domestic abuse allegations.
Both teams acted swiftly, even though neither player had been convicted of any charge.
The Patriots acted even faster on Monday, cutting linebacker Brandon Spikes just a day after Spikes’ car was found abandoned on a Massachusetts highway.
Spikes found himself team-less before he was even charged with a single crime.
On Sunday morning, Spikes’s 2011 Mercedes Maybach was found abandoned around the same time and in the same area that a hit and run had been reported.
On Tuesday, according to The Boston Herald, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said of the release, “I think all of you can understand exactly what happened.’’
Spikes had rejoined the team just 21 days earlier.
“This happened off the field. The Patriots put the problem right where it belongs – squarely in the player’s lap. It’s Brandon Spikes’ problem now. Not the Patriots’ problem,’’ said James E. Lukaszewski, a crisis consultant who has worked with corporations, academic institutions as well as athletic organizations.
It remains to be seen whether teams will take the cut and run approach with players they can’t afford to lose. If the Maybach had belonged to Tom Brady, or even a player like Chandler Jones, it’s more easy to believe he’d still be on the team.
“There’s a tendency in professional sports to sort of let these things play out,’’ said Lukaszewski. “But if you really want to move forward, you have to do things as quickly as possible.’’
Back in 2014, some NFL leaders were struggling to come to terms with this tenet of effective crisis handling.
In 2014, the Ravens stood by Ray Rice after the three-time Pro Bowler was arrested on domestic abuse charges in February and initially suspended two games. The team did not release him until a video surfaced showing Rice knocking out his fiance in an elevator in September. He has not found a new team since.
And in September 2014, facing allegations of child abuse, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was at first backed by the team–until public backlash led the team to put the 2012 MVP on the league’s restricted list. Peterson did not return in the 2014 season, but he is set to rejoin the Vikings this coming season.
McDonald, the defensive lineman who was cut last month by the Bears, was living proof of the shifting approach to allegations of off-field misconduct last season while he was with the 49ers. He was arrested for domestic violence in late August. But the team kept him on until December, when he was cut as police began investigating new sexual assault allegations.
Justine Griffin, managing director for the PR consultancy Rasky Baerlin, said there’s a big difference between how teams should respond to on-field and off-field issues from a crisis management perspective. For example, Brady’s and the Patriots’ public profile may have been dinged across the country by the Deflategate scandal, but it’s not a fair comparison to illegal or immoral behavior. The latter requires a swifter response.
“[The Brandon Spikes situation] is like having a hand grenade with the pin pulled – do you want it standing next to you, or do you want it as far away as possible?’’ Griffin said. “The best thing to do is to take swift action and distance the behavior.’’