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A Tale of Two Leagues: Don't Run from the Story, Own It

05/13/2014 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2014

Consider: In one corner, the National Basketball Association, still reeling from the abhorrent, ugly comments from one of its owners -- a controversy of the highest order. In another corner, the National Football League, and the draft of its first openly gay player. Not silencing it; not celebrating it either; just letting it happen, unfold, be, as it should.

Two very different news stories, two very different narratives -- and both with enormous opportunity. To its credit, the NBA was decisive in its initial actions, which, in crisis communications, is exactly what you need to be. Own the story as quickly as possible to prevent the competition and critics from painting the story for you. The league "investigated," corroborated, voted, and then agreed to ban LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life, and fine him some money for his racially deplorable commentary.

But since then, hope against hope, the NBA has been rather silent, trying, it seems, to hope the controversy away, hope it to sleep, hoping it dissipates all by itself.

In the case of the NFL, a decidedly different story, but no less a minefield to navigate. It is absolutely right on the money that the drafting of a gay football player should not be controversial, but it is. Unfortunately, that's the news climate we're in -- or the news climate I feared we were in, but was happily surprised to see ESPN, NBC, ABC and so many others, along with the a big chunk of the blogosphere, embrace video of Michael Sam's kiss with his significant other upon learning the news that the St. Louis Rams had drafted him.

Certainly not all rainbows and unicorns by any stretch, though. Look no further than Derrick Ward's tweet that Sam's display wasn't appropriate for kids. Dolphins safety Don Jones called the Sam reaction "horrible," and "OMG" when he saw it.

The Dolphins, like the Clippers, responded with a quick fine and a suspension, and indicated that he'd be enrolled in some sensitivity training (what is it with that Dolphins locker room?) To his credit, Jones did issue an apology, taking "full responsibility" for the comments.

Two leagues, two situations, two very different storylines and the opportunity for both organizations to own these cycles with carefully crafted narratives of their own. But neither really is, or at least not yet. The NBA has been quiet; and the NFL really hasn't tried to own this story, hasn't issued a statement digging a little deeper into tolerance, or acceptance, and maybe neither league thinks it's its place to do so.

I would argue the other way. Both leagues have carefully crafted their images, their level of influence and I'd suggest that by taking a stand, embracing these circumstances, each has the opportunity to increase its influence substantially.

Crisis communications done right can turn into real opportunities for those enmeshed in difficult circumstances. Race and sexual orientation are two of the hottest hot-button social issues we have. The NFL and NBA can wield tremendous leadership.

In the same way teams put black numbers on their jerseys to honor a fallen teammate or coach; in the same way NFL players wear pink to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month, both leagues can come up with ways to embrace the controversies and news cycles that threaten them.

This takes more than merely a statement of support, too. While words can fade, actions tend to survive a lot longer. Maybe a jersey patch, or helmet sticker that illustrates some sense of solidarity against racial hatred and homophobia might be appropriate? The $2.5 million Sterling fine is pocket change to both sides of that equation, but could be pure gold in the form of college and university endowments to help create the NBA Chair of Race Relations to teach courses on tolerance, acceptance and history, or something like that.

Here's a chance to be bold, to take a stand, use some of that public-profile currency to do some broader, social and long-lasting good.

This is the power, potential and alternate side of a crisis: To turn it around, accept it, share the lessons learned from it, and move the story forward so the rest of the community -- and all of the key constituencies can benefit from it. Both leagues are in the luxurious position of not having created the crises they face, yet both need to, must, react.

In most crisis situations, those involved want them to go away as quickly and quietly as possible. I counsel plenty of companies on how to accomplish precisely that. But in some rare instances -- like these, while everyone runs, sometimes it's better to stop; use it, learn from it, benefit from it, and leave something positive in its wake. I know it might seem counter-intuitive for professional athletic leagues like these, but NFL and NBA take note: Now is not the time to run. Now is the time to own.