New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Tuesday that the team would "reluctantly" accept the NFL's punishment that docks them two future draft picks and $1 million.
This begs the question: Why do organizations like the Patriots who proclaim their innocence then settle with those who regulate (or prosecute) them? "If you're really so innocent," the reasoning goes, "why not fight the charges?" Throughout my career in crisis management, I have had countless people tell me, "If it were me, I'd fight to the death!"
Only people and organizations that have experienced modern, soul-crushing litigation and media embarrassment can appreciate the answer: Sometimes you surrender because the cost of fighting is too high.
"Costs" come in a few forms, the big ones being financial, reputational and emotional. Kraft surely has the money to fight the NFL, but it doesn't mean that litigation is what he wants to spend money on. There are certain billionaires for whom litigation is a hobby, the ultimate Sport of Kings. To his credit, Kraft is not one of these.
The reputational cost of a fight is probably the biggest variable in why high-prestige organizations don't fight certain investigations. Contrary to the fantasies our culture has about the power of spin campaigns, the banalities of crisis management are much more stark: In PR battles, the mighty defendant is almost always at the mercy of his accuser. If Kraft fought the NFL, the story -- in the absence of a smoking gun vindication -- would be guilty, privileged team tries to whine its way out of mess. This would, in turn, trigger uncontrollable waves of negative punditry and social media firing squads. And, no, the best spinmeisters money could buy would be powerless to stop it.
The Patriots' 20,000-word response to the Wells investigation that provided excuses and explanations for its main findings, was savagely dissected by pundits and investigative reporters, especially the assertion that one of the equipment managers called himself "the deflator" because he was trying to lose weight. More data is not always your friend.
The emotional costs of fighting the NFL would also likely sap Kraft and the Patriots' strength. When you are a defendant in a fight like this, that's all you are. Your whole life is the fight. It's all you live, eat and breathe. "Compartmentalization" is as rare a gift as Tom Brady's quarterbacking talent. In the course of a decades-long career, I've met very few people who can compartmentalize and fully function.
There is another variable that crisis management teams have to consider when deciding whether or not to fight a particular charge: What else is "out there?" Targets under attack are sometimes innocent, but sometimes they're not. When you make the decision to keep a fight in the spotlight, you invite scrutiny into inconvenient areas. So, when a controversial client tells me they want to "tell my side of the story," I always ask, "Are you sure there is not a story buried out there that you'd rather not get told?"
In addition to Brady's personal appeal of the NFL's sanctions, which continues, the Patriots also have the lingering "Spygate" scandal skulking around their basement. Guilty or innocent, is this a hornet's nest the team would like to bean with a football, deflated or not? Unlikely.
Crisis management is all about pursuing the "least bad" of one's options. In that spirit, Kraft's decision seems to be the right one.
Stuart Dezenhall contributed to this report.
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