THE BLOG
09/15/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

The NFL - Pivotal Moment, Not PR Nightmare

There are those who have described the NFL controversy as a "PR nightmare."

But that's not accurate. That phrase -- as it always does -- misses the point completely. In fact, by implication, that description would deny both the seriousness of the underlying issue and the importance of addressing head-on a tragic problem that quite rightly has leapt onto the front pages.

Simply put, strong values and respect for others are at stake here. The important message is to demand and aggressively enforce a tough no-tolerance stance on domestic abuse of any kind, anywhere, at any time. And that includes NFL players. Ability on the field to run, catch and throw better than most can never be an excuse for the ultimate in disrespect -- physical and mental abuse.

Even those who don't follow the NFL or professional football know all the details by now. And that's a good thing.

News coverage, public comments, Twitter and social media have put the issue of abuse front-and-center. And there is a lot going on within the NFL. Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice gets the boot. Another running back, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings turns himself in and is benched. At the very last minute, the Carolina Panthers put defensive end Greg Hardy on the inactive list for Sunday's game, reversing a decision made two days earlier. And the 49ers stand by defensive end Ray McDonald in spite of mounting pressure and an ongoing investigation.

All the while, the controversy escalates around whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should resign, given what he says he knew, what he says he didn't know and what he did about it all. Monday's Huffington Post banner headline hit Goodell hard: "Mr. Football Goes Into Hiding."

At first blush, some are quick to claim that it is really all about the money. The money argument says that permitting abusers to play on game day means fans in the stands. Hardly the case. It is way too simplistic to say that star players must play, regardless of their off-the-field behavior, and assume that they bring fans to the stadium and eyeballs to widescreen television.

While there's a lot of rhetoric that has heightened the controversy, the real issue is among the most serious for the League and the teams.

With the power and popularity of football as its leverage, the NFL must take a leadership role and set the standard by having what would be considered the strongest enforcement policy on abuse, anywhere.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti in his straight-forward, unscripted interview on the team's hometown WBAL-TV, Thursday, September 11.

Speaking about his decision to cut Rice and the fact that some fans are protesting his decision, he said that this is a "seminal moment" for football and, if the Ravens are to be the "poster children... I'm happy if it helps other people."

Bisciotti is right. This is a pivotal time for professional football and it cannot be trivialized.

As a public relations professional and advisor for the past 40 years, I've heard the "PR nightmare" phrase all too often. Sometimes it is used by executives in an attempt to minimize the seriousness of the issue by condescendingly describing it as a "PR" problem, rather than a serious lapse in judgment or decision-making, which it most often is. Other times, it is used by the media to draw attention and sensationalize the story.

Regardless of the words used to describe the issue, the NFL's problem is serious. Moreover, when listening to Goodell, you can't help but wonder if he might regret some things he has said so far. As the adage goes: The cover-up is worse than the crime.

So, now what?

The NFL really has two choices. The first is to listen to the public and take to heart the importance of values and respect, strengthening its platform against domestic abuse by unhesitatingly using the massive power of the NFL and team ownership to enforce and punish. Or, the second is to try to power through the controversy and assume people will forget and Goodell keeps his job.

Let's hope Goodell and the team owners follow through with the first.

If not, they will soon find that the public has an enormous power to bring about change, even if they won't.