Crisis comms, sports marketing execs praise NFL for Damar Hamlin response

The NFL postponed the Buffalo Bills clash against the Cincinnati Bengals roughly an hour after Hamlin’s collapse. On Thursday, the league canceled the game.

The Las Vegas Raiders' Allegiant Stadium showed support for Damar Hamlin. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Prayers stretched far beyond the world of football when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during the team’s Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals. 

Training staff from both teams, along with first responders, quickly began administering CPR and used automated external defibrillators to restore Hamlin’s heartbeat, which took about 10 minutes. The Bills later confirmed that Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest.

Around an hour after the injury, the NFL postponed the contest

Some were quick to criticize the NFL for its initial response on social media and other platforms, particularly the hour-long time before it announced a decision about the game. However, crisis communications and sports marketing executives disagree, giving the league high marks for its reaction in an unprecedented situation. 

What went right?

Julie Andreeff Jensen, co-CEO of Jasper Advisors, says that the NFL demonstrated its priorities were with Hamlin and the emotional well-being of his teammates and family on Monday night.

“We [were] a captive audience watching this in real-time, and it feels like a long time, but in reality a lot of decisions were happening behind the scenes in just one traumatic hour,” she says. 

Jensen, who formerly served as SVP of external affairs and comms at the Washington Football Team, now known as the Washington Commanders, adds that the NFL’s priority while Hamlin was down was not to communicate with the TV audience, but to ensure his safety.

“In a crisis, you prioritize your decisions, triage what needs to be done, and then, when you have the information you need, you clearly go out and communicate the facts,” she says. 

Jensen says that after the NFL knew Hamlin had reached the hospital and the organization was aware of the care he was receiving, it held a conference call for media members, which began after midnight on Tuesday. 

Participating in the call were Jeff Miller, NFL EVP of comms, public affairs and policy; Troy Vincent, EVP of football operations; and chief football administrative officer Dawn Aponte. 

“The last thing you want to do is make a situation that’s already incredibly difficult and traumatic worse,” Jensen says. “[The NFL] waited to get the facts, and to inform [Hamlin’s] family and teammates, and then they were able to communicate more broadly.”

The importance of keeping quiet

With Hamlin receiving treatment in the hospital, many started to question how and what approach the NFL would take in regard to the postponed matchup. 

The league remained relatively quiet on the matter, demonstrating to all parties its commitment to the players, says United Entertainment Group CEO and founder Jarrod Moses, who also applauded the NFL’s response. 

“[Rescheduling the game] demonstrates the wrong priorities,” Moses says. “The priority is 100% for the well-being of the player.”

After physicians confirmed Hamlin was awake and neurologically intact, the NFL released a statement on Thursday evening, canceling the Bills-Bengals contest. The statement added that NFL clubs were set to meet on Friday to discuss a resolution recommended by league commissioner Roger Goodell and approved by the competition committee to mitigate the “competitive inequities” that may arise from the cancellation. 

What’s next? 

While no one wants to see an injury similar to Hamlin’s occur again, the NFL must learn from what happened on Monday night, says Axia Public Relations CEO and managing partner Jason Mudd. 

Mudd suggests the NFL and the Players Association respond “by developing an official policy that makes it clear when and how the game referee can make or receive official in-game decisions to postpone a game.”

Such a policy would set a precedent for players, fans, team personnel and reporters on when they should expect a game to be postponed or canceled.  

“The NFL not only has a great opportunity, but also a great responsibility,” Mudd says. “If you are the commissioner of the NFL, or whatever your sport of choice may be, and you’re not having conversations about similar scenarios and how you will handle them, shame on you.”

Mudd adds that the NFL can change the protocol annually or whenever necessary, based on new experience and input from its medical and security advisers, similar to how the league alters in-game rules.

“In many ways, it’s important what they decide to do, but what’s even more important is the sentiment and methodology of how they communicate,” he says. “Are they going to be emotionally intelligent with the way they respond moving forward? Or are they going to appear to be tone deaf to the situation?”

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