Authors: Greg G. Armfield, John McGuire, William Hoffman, Yejin Shin, Nickolas Eckhart, Bridget Acquah-Baidoo, and Josele Diaz
John McGuire, PhD
310 Paul Miller, Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74075
Greg G. Armfield (PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia) is an Associate Professor and basic course director in the Department of Communication Studies at New Mexico State University. John McGuire (PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia) is a Professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. William Hoffman, Yejin Shin, Nickolas Eckhart, Bridget Acquah-Baidoo, and Josele Diaz are graduate students at New Mexico State University.
Deflategate: The Patriots’ Use of Image Repair
This study examined the image repair strategies of key public figures involved in the National Football League’s (NFL) Deflategate scandal involving the New England Patriots leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, the sport’s most prestigious event. Researchers examined separate image repair efforts from the New England Patriots owner and head coach for the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, which the New England Patriots won. Results show the New England Patriots favored denial tactics including simple and shifting blame, along with reducing offensiveness tactics of bolstering and transcendence. Findings and future extensions of Image Repair Theory are discussed.
Keywords: Image repair, Deflategate, NFL, athletes, Super Bowl XLIX
There is no greater American sports spectacle than the National Football League’s (NFL) championship game, the Super Bowl. Seen by hundreds of millions of fans around the world each February, some view the day as an unofficial American holiday. Teams that reach the Super Bowl are showered with constant attention by the media for the two weeks leading up to the game.
Few teams during the 2000s have received more attention than the New England Patriots. The franchise has won six Super Bowls since 2001 with Head Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. However, the lead up to Super Bowl XLIX was unlike any other because of what happened in the American Football Conference’s (AFC) title game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. After New England routed Indianapolis 45-7, word spread that the NFL had confiscated many of the footballs that had been used in the game. The NFL later confirmed initial reports that many of the footballs used were underinflated or under the standard air pressure required by NFL league rule 2-1. The Patriots’ franchise, which had been involved in controversy before during the so-called Spygate episode, was now faced with a new scandal at a time when media scrutiny would be at its highest level. This paper, utilizing Benoit’s image repair theory (IRT) (4,7), examines how Belichick and New England owner Robert Kraft responded to allegations that the Patriots organization, or at least one organizational member, had tampered with the ball pressure; after NFL league officials had verified improper air inflation of the footballs used.
The Deflategate scandal offered a unique empirical research opportunity to examine major sports organizations in crisis. Sports scholars have long identified crisis communication in sports “as a legitimate area of inquiry” although the focus has been primarily on individual athletes and events (50). Most image repair research have dealt with corporations, such as Union Carbide’s response to the Bhopal disaster in 1984 (4), Firestone tire failure in 1992 (14), or British Petroleum’s 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill (35). Research on sporting organizations is relatively new and is limited to studies of sports leagues (37; 43, 42) or university athletic departments (23, 30).
The Patriots’ franchise represents big business for its owner and investors, with a valuation of $3.7 billion in 2017 and annual revenue of $575 million (2). But unlike other corporations where businesses are judged by profit sheets and dividends, the Patriots are judged each day in newspapers and on cable sports television shows by wins and losses. This study will expand our understanding of how coaches like Belichick become the face of such organizations in these crises and how they deploy image repair strategies. First, we provide a brief historical context to Deflategate. Second, we discuss the standards of image repair (56) and Benoit’s (4,7) typology of image restoration/repair and provide an overview of the image repair scholarship respective to athletes and sporting organizations.
While New England has had more on-field success in the 21st century than any other NFL team, that record of excellence has been tarnished by two major controversies. In 2007, the NFL penalized the organization for videotaping defensive signals of New York Jets coaches during an early season game. Belichick was fined $500,000 and the team was fined $250,000 and forfeited a first-round draft pick (3). The history of this incident may have had a role in influencing public and league reaction to word that there may have been something wrong with the footballs used in the AFC championship game more than seven years later.
On Monday January 19, 2015, after New England had crushed Indianapolis 45-to-7 to advance to the Super Bowl, multiple media outlets were breaking stories that the Patriots were being investigated for using underinflated balls. Tom Brady, making an early morning appearance by phone on a Boston sports radio show, laughed off the accusations (21). Later that day, Belichick acknowledged the NFL was looking into the footballs provided by the Patriots.
Multiple media outlets (e.g., ESPN, CNN) reported 11 of 12 game balls provided by the Patriots were as much as two pounds underinflated (33). NFL rules stated specific guidelines of inflation (12.5 to 13.5 psi) and measureable guidelines for short and long ball circumferences (44). Because the weather was cold and wet for the AFC title game, it was suspected that the balls were under-inflated as to give the Patriot quarterback a better grip on the football.
As the investigation continued, both Belichick and Brady held news conferences on Thursday January 22, 2015. Belichick addressed the media with a prepared statement, Brady took questions from reporters. After their news conferences, several analysts began publically questioning the honesty of both men. Retired players Mark Brunell and Jerome Bettis most notably challenged Brady’s veracity (31). Belichick talked again with reporters before the team headed to the Phoenix area to begin final preparations for the Super Bowl. During the initial media sessions at the Super Bowl site, both Belichick and Brady began to beg off answering questions about Deflategate, saying their concentration had to be on the game. There was also an unusual interview session conducted by Patriots’ principal owner Robert Kraft, who defended his organization. The refusal of the Patriot players to discuss Deflategate led to the assembled media to focus instead on the upcoming match-up with the Seahawks.
The saga of Deflategate dragged into 2015, months after New England’s fourth Super Bowl title. The league’s investigation into the matter took more than three months. Although that investigation absolved the Patriots’ organization executives of any wrongdoing, Commissioner Roger Goodell fined the organization $1 million in May 2015 and stripped the team of two future draft choices for the actions of two team employees suspected of direct involvement in the matter. Both employees were fired by the Patriots and the league suspended Brady for four games, citing a lack of cooperation in the league investigation. The league could offer no direct proof of Brady’s involvement in deflating the footballs (36). After an appeal to the league failed, Brady went to federal court to overturn of his suspension.
In September 2015, days before the start of the 2015-2016 season, Judge Richard Berman ruled in Brady’s favor and ordered the suspension vacated, finding that the league had failed to follow its own guidelines about penalizing players and did not make evidence and witnesses available to Brady’s side during the controversy. Brady and the NFL Players Association welcomed the ruling while the NFL said it would appeal the decision (27). As the 2015-2016 season began with Brady playing for the Patriots, the NFL league office was preparing an appeal. Long after the end of the 2015-2016 season and Super Bowl 50 on April 25, 2016 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, overturned the decision reinstating Brady’s four game suspension (20). Close to 500 days after Deflategate started, Brady filed a second appeal for a second hearing by the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which was denied on July 13, 2016, effectively reinstating Brady’s initial four game suspension (20). Five hundred and forty-four days after Deflategate began, Brady announced on July 15, 2016 he would not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (20). Brady served his suspension missing the first four games of the 2016 NFL season. The Patriots went 3 and 1, despite playing two different quarterbacks while Brady served his suspension. Brady returned from his suspension, leading the Patriots to a 34-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. With Deflategate still on the consciousness of NFL fans, Kraft accepted the Lombardi Trophy from Roger Goodell, stating this Super Bowl win was unequivocally the sweetest (34).
Use of Image Repair
Current approaches in communicative apologia provide many useful approaches for understanding choices individuals and organizations make when performing verbal self-defense. Burke (18), Fisher (22), Huxman and Bruce (24), Ryan (45), Scott and Lyman (48), and Ware and Linkugel (56) have established a variety of verbal self-defense strategies, but each of these theories offers options overlooked by the others. Several authors have adapted Ware and Linkugel’s (56) work to organizational crisis communication (e.g., 9, 11, 16, 47, 49). In fact, Benoit (4,7) offers the most comprehensive and widely applied typology that extends the work of Ware and Linkugel. While Benoit’s typology is fitting for both individuals and organizations, his development of image repair strategies is most relevant to our present analysis that the New England Patriots engaged in Image Repair with the goal to rehabilitate its reputation within the NFL and among the fans of the NFL.
Benoit Theory of Image Repair
The primary purpose of the rhetor is to restore or protect the rhetor (Benoit, 4, 7). Benoit’s IRT has been applied widely to analyze image repair attempts of organizations (9, 16, 17), celebrities (5, 8, 10), governmental discourse (58), political discourse (12, 28), and athletes (15, 57).
Benoit (4, 7) developed his theory of image repair based on the assumption that such utterances are goal-oriented, seeking rehabilitation of the communicator’s image or reputation. Researchers use the theory to: (a) establish the communicator’s goals, (b) identify methods of image repair, and (c) evaluate how effective the communicator was in the effort (4, 7). Five major strategies are associated with Benoit’s IRT, including: (a) denial, (b) evading responsibility, (c) reducing offensiveness, (d) corrective action, and (e) mortification (4; 7). First, Denial is described as a communicator’s rejection of the claims being made. Second, Evading Responsibility is the communicator offering alternative explanations as to why something has happened. Examples of this include: (a) provocation, (b) defeasibility, (c) accident, or (d) good intentions. Third, Reducing Offensiveness suggests the communicator accepts some measure of responsibility, but offers reasons that would lessen the impact on their reputation. Examples of this strategy include: (a) bolstering the image of the communicator to lessen the impact of the harmful action; (b) minimization of the incident; (c) differentiation to contrast the specific act with even more serious transgressions; (d) transcendence, in which the specific act is placed in a separate light; (e) attacking the accuser; and (f) offering some form of compensation for the perceived harm caused by the communicator’s actions. Fourth, Corrective Action can be described as the communicator promising steps that will correct the problem. Fifth, Mortification is where the communicator expresses disappointment in his or her own actions or thoughts and seeks forgiveness (4, 7).
Development of image repair research has resulted in the development of the following areas. Sanderson (46) identified self-presentation strategy used by Curt Schilling on his blog 38pitches.com. Value-differentiation has also been used as an organizational rhetorical device as an attempt to restore organizational value violated by a crisis (26). A final tactic, stonewalling, is argued to involve withholding information, differentiated from silence and passiveness, without denial by managing the information released to internal and external publics (52). In essence, the public figure who practices stonewalling can control the communication environment and stalls any additional questioning by external publics.
Image Repair in the Sports Domain
Benoit’s typology has been gaining in greater application to sports organizations and athletes. One of the earliest examinations of an athlete’s image repair efforts was Benoit and Hanczor’s (10) examination of Tonya Harding’s appearance on 60 Minutes, defending herself after the attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan at the United States figure skating championships earlier that year. The researchers found Harding engaged in several image repair tactics, including: (a) denial, (b) attacking one’s accusers, and (c) bolstering her own image. The researchers found Harding chose not to utilize mortification to any significant extent. Benoit and Hanczor (10) evaluated Harding’s image repair efforts as ineffective because of the lack of mortification or corrective actions expressed. Benoit’s theory has been used to analyze image repair situations for other athletes such as Tiger Woods (6), Lance Armstrong (7) and Mark McGwire (32).
Image repair for non-team sport athletes functions slightly differently than when organizations of sporting teams are accused, even if the accusations end up focusing on one specific team player, like that of the media spotlight on Brady. Kruse (29) argued, “in defending their characters, sport figures use the same strategies other apologists employ. However, it is incumbent upon those who have violated the sport ethic to assure the fans that equilibrium has been restored, and a stable relationship exists between the team and the fates” (p. 283).
Fortunato (23) analyzed Duke University’s lacrosse scandal where three players were alleged to have sexually assaulted a female dancer hired for a party that several team members attended. He argued the university employed mortification, bolstering (of the university), and corrective action. Similar findings were found by Len-Ríos’ (30) content analysis of university statements published in newspapers.
Benoit (7) examined the “Bountygate” scandal that engulfed the NFL’s New Orleans Saints in 2012, when members of the Saints’ coaching staff offered cash incentives for knocking opposing players out of the game. Benoit’s examination of the organization’s image repair effort found that Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis expressed mortification at the behavior that had taken place, promised corrective action by no longer allowing such bounties on opposing players, and denial, expressing that owner Tom Benson was in no way involved in offering cash incentives. Benoit’s evaluation was that these image repair efforts went lacking, particularly because of the offense involved. It could also be noted that the owner of the New Orleans Saints (Tom Benson) never directly participated in the image repair effort (7).
While existing IRT literature has typically focused on the individual, organizations in team sports are more and more becoming embroiled in controversies such as fair play, both on and off the field. The case of the New Orleans Saints demonstrated that individuals other than the owner at the top of the organization chart (including the head coach) become the spokespersons at times of organizational crises. The current study of the New England Patriots handling of Deflategate will add to that body of research.
The discussion above demonstrates that IRT is an important area of research and details all levels of the New England Patriots’ organization trying to address the Deflategate controversy in their own ways. Benoit’s IRT is an appropriate method for identifying the strategies of Head Coach Belichick and Team Owner Kraft (the main figures in the Patriots organization responding to the controversy). Therefore, we posit the following research questions:
RQ1: What image repair strategies were employed by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick leading up to Super Bowl XLIX?
RQ2: What image repair strategies were employed by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft leading up to Super Bowl XLIX?
RQ3: How effective was the New England Patriots communication strategies in the short-term?
To answer the first two research questions, a multi-step approach for rhetorical analysis was used focusing on the typology of image repair (7). The first step involved gathering and understanding all relevant background information and the context in which the statements were made. The second step involved choosing an artifact for analysis. Full transcripts of all the New England Patriots press conferences were available from the team website. Only statements and answers that were relevant to Deflategate were analyzed. Questions about what players ate for breakfast or game plans for Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks were discarded.
Benoit (4, 7) explained text(s) should be divided into defensive utterances using the typology of image repair strategies. The critic then categorizes defensive utterances and evaluates them in terms of appropriateness in countering the attack or reducing the guilt. Critics should consider the appropriateness given the apparent audience, its perceptions, and likely reactions.
To answer research question three, secondary data was used from a national random sample survey conducted by Public Policy Polling (N=612). The poll was conducted from January 22nd to 25th, 2015 via telephone and over the Internet (20% of respondents who didn’t have a landline).
Image Repair Strategies of Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick
The week after the AFC Championship victory by the New England Patriots, Belichick made four media appearances leading up to the team leaving for Phoenix and Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick addressed Deflategate one time after arriving in Phoenix on Monday January 26 in Phoenix, Arizona. His tone and image repair strategies changed during each of these media interactions (See Table 1).
Table 1: Image Repair Strategies Employed by Representatives of the New England Patriots
|Date||Patriots Head Coach
|Monday 1/19/15||Simple Denial, Corrective Action||NoMedia Availability|
|Tuesday 1/20/15||Defeasibility||No Media Availability|
|Thursday 1/22/15||Simple Denial, Shifting the Blame, Corrective Action, Bolstering||No Media Availability|
|Saturday 1/24/15||Simple Denial, Defeasibility, Bolstering, Transcendence||No Media Availability|
(SuperBowl Media Appearance)
|Bolstering,Transcendence||Simple Denial, Good Intentions, Bolstering, Attacking the Accuser|
Monday January 19, 2015
During Coach Belichick’s scheduled conference call with the media, reporters asked four questions regarding the breaking story not yet labeled by media as Deflategate. Belichick stated what could be described as corrective actions, stating, “we’ll cooperate fully with whatever the league wants,” and “whatever questions they have for us, whatever they want us to do” (38, para. 3). The only other use of image repair was when a reporter asked if the Patriots knew of the issue with the game balls during the contest. Belichick responded using simple denial stating “I didn’t know anything about it until this morning” (38, para. 5).
Tuesday January 20, 2015
Coach Belichick faced only one question regarding deflated footballs. Belichick’s response was “any questions on that you should talk to them [the NFL] about” (13, para. 2). This demonstrated the use of defeasibility by Belichick to redirect media questioning to the NFL and is an avoidance technique that Belichick used successfully to redirect the media questioning for the day.
Thursday January 22, 2015
This was the next media availability to question Patriot coaches and players. Belichick employed several techniques of image repair as national attention to the Patriots’ alleged use of underinflated footballs had turned into a media frenzy. It was the top story on all three national evening telecasts in the United States and major cable news networks, not just ESPN and Fox Sports (51).
Belichick addressed the media with a prepared statement using denial and attempts to reduce the offensiveness of those media allegations. Belichick’s strategy of simple denial was directed at not knowing how the game balls were prepared:
I had no knowledge of the various steps involved in the game balls and the process that happened between when they were prepared and went to the officials and went to the game. So, I’ve learned a lot about that. I obviously understand that each team has the opportunity to prepare the balls the way they want, give them to the officials and the game officials either approve or disapprove the balls. That really was the end of it for me until I learned a little bit more about this the last couple days. (39, para. 1)
Later during his prepared statement, Belichick reasserted his initial denial from January 19, avowing “Again, I was completely and totally unaware of any of this that we’re talking about in the last couple days until Monday morning” (39, para. 7). Belichick’s use of denial revolved around restating that he did not know about any issue with ball inflation until the Monday after the AFC championship game and denying the fact that he knew about or had any knowledge of the ball preparation process prior to games or on game day.
Belichick also sought to shift blame (a form of denial) on to players in the organization and game officials, claiming:
I think we all know that quarterbacks, kickers, specialists have certain preferences on footballs. They know a lot more about it than I do. They’re a lot more sensitive to it than I am. I hear them comment on it from time to time, but I can tell you and they will tell you that there is never any sympathy whatsoever from me on that subject. Zero. Tom’s [Brady] personal preferences on his footballs are something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide. I could tell you that in my entire coaching career I have never talked to any player, staff member about football air pressure. That is not a subject that I have ever brought up. To me the footballs are approved by the league and game officials pregame and we play with what’s out there. (39, para. 3)
Strategically, Belichick identified kickers in this statement, but most football fans that follow the NFL with some knowledge of league rules will immediately know that the ongoing investigation had nothing to do with the special “K” balls used for kicking which the NFL provides. The only balls under investigation were those prepared by the Patriots’ staff, which most quarterbacks, retired or actives, will explain that the staff prepares game balls according to the starting quarterbacks preferences or in this case Brady. While Belichick does shift blame to his quarterback, he minimizes blame by trying to bring attention to NFL referees and other specialists like kickers.
Belichick also attempted to reduce the offensiveness of the alleged acts by bolstering when he states:
Let me just say that my personal coaching philosophy, my mentality has always been to make things as difficult as possible for players in practice. So, with regard to footballs, I’m sure that any current or past player of mine would tell you that the balls we practice with are as bad as they can be: wet, sticky, cold, slippery. However bad we can make them, I make them. Any time that players complain about the quality of the footballs, I make them worse and that stops the complaining. We never use the condition of the footballs as an excuse . . . That has never been a priority for me and I want the players to deal with a harder situation in practice than they’ll ever have to deal with in the game. (39, para. 2)
Belichick, long known for not being very forthcoming to the media, seemed to be very open and forthcoming. He provided insight into his coaching philosophy by bolstering his use of balls that were in poor condition during practice and claiming that he is intentional about using practice balls that are wet or worn. For this reason, he argued the Patriots rarely turned the ball over.
The last image repair technique Belichick employed was corrective action. While not admitting that the balls were or might have been underinflated, he stated:
Obviously with our footballs being inflated to the 12.5-pound range, any deflation would then take us under that specification limit. Knowing that now, in the future we will certainly inflate the footballs above that low level to account for any possible change during the game. (39, para. 3)
Later, Belichick twice restated that, “We will take steps in the future to make sure that we don’t put ourselves in that type of potential situation again” (39, para. 3); and “I told you the one change we would make in the initial start level of the football pressure, but that’s really about it” (39, para. 6).
Belichick returned to his opening approach of simple denial when pressed by reporters after his statement repeating, “I’ve told you everything I know,” “I don’t have an explanation,” and “There’s nothing else I can add to it” (39, para. 11, 13, & 19).
Saturday January 24, 2015
Belichick, not known for making extra media appearances, held what could be called a surreal news conference to discuss the science behind football deflation (54). During this news conference, Belichick stated, “I believe now 100 percent that I have personally, and we as an organization, have absolutely followed every rule to the letter” (40, para. 2). Belichick’s primary approach during this was to demonstrate defeasibility in attempting to prove the balls were inflated to 12.5 PSI by the officials “in a controlled climate” (40, para. 7). Belichick continued:
We found that once the footballs were on the field over an extended period of time, in other words, they were adjusted to the climatic conditions and also the fact that the footballs reached an equilibrium without the rubbing process, that after that had run its course and the footballs had reached an equilibrium, that they were down approximately one-and-a-half pounds per square inch. When we brought the footballs back in after that process and re-tested them in a controlled environment as we have here, then those measurements rose approximately one-half pound per square inch. So, the net of one and a half, back to a half, is approximately one pound per square inch, to one and a half. (40, para. 8)
Belichick’s explanations can all be viewed as a function of evading responsibility by arguing for defeasibility, noting the process to change ball pressure. Toward the end of Belichick’s prepared statement, he used bolstering to argue how the team was dominant and deserves to be playing in the Super Bowl by stating:
This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season. We won two games in the playoffs against two good football teams. The best team in the postseason, that’s what this team is. I know that because I’ve been with them every day and I’m proud of this team. (40, para. 15)
Belichick returned to his use of simple denial after bolstering the team’s success on the field stating, “At no time was there any intent whatsoever to try to compromise the integrity of the game or to gain an advantage” (40, para. 17). Belichick concluded his statement by stating that it was time to focus on the Super Bowl game, “This is the end of this subject for me for a long time, OK? We have a huge game, a huge challenge for our football team and that’s where that focus is going to go” (40, para. 18). Strategically, Belichick utilized transcendence here to shift the media spotlight away from the discussion of Deflategate toward the Super Bowl game in this last media appearance prior to arriving at the site of the Super Bowl. This attempt was logical and well-crafted as the team, along with owner Kraft as we discuss below, wanted to change the media’s focus and spotlight of the NFL’s investigation into the Patriots’ alleged use of deflated footballs.
Monday January 26, 2015
After arriving at the site of the Super Bowl, Belichick relied on two separate image repair tactics including bolstering, stating, “Our team has worked very hard all through the year going all the way back to the spring workouts” (41, para. 32).
In addition to bolstering, Belichick used transcendence several times when responding to questions, stating: “I appreciate the question . . . My attention is totally turned now and focused on the Seattle Seahawks and our game Sunday” and “Right now, the only thing I’m focused on is the Seattle Seahawks. That’s what we’re going to talk about (41, para. 33, 35).
From that day on at every press conference held for Super Bowl Sunday, if a reporter asked a question about Deflategate, they would receive the same generic use of transcendence. Belichick would simply claim that his focus was on the game or on the Seahawks. This approach seemed to be very successful as the week after the game, sports reporters rarely if ever referenced Deflategate and ESPN reporting live from the Super Bowl did not report on the issue on either of its NFL focused shows (NFL Live or NFL Insiders). This strategy mimicked Belichick’s initial meeting with the media in Phoenix but stood in opposition of the fiery defense presented by Kraft as discussed below.
Image Repair Strategies of Patriots Owner Robert Kraft
Kraft only made one media appearance and released a one-paragraph statement on Saturday January 24, 2015, after Belichick’s news conference. In the statement, Kraft emphasized good intentions on the part of the organization, stating:
On Monday, I received a letter from the league office informing me that they would be conducting an investigation into the air pressure of the game balls. Immediately after receiving the letter, I instructed our staff to be completely cooperative and transparent with the league’s investigators. During the three days they were here, we provided access to every full- and part-time employee the league’s representatives requested to speak with and produced every communication device that they requested to search. (53, para. 1)
Kraft continued this track promising, “Our organization will continue to cooperate throughout the league’s investigation” (53, para. 1). However, he strategically changed to transcendence to prepare for the Super Bowl arguing a larger and more important task was at hand: “Our players, coaches and staff will continue to focus on our preparations for Super Bowl XLIX and the many challenges we face as we prepare for the Seattle Seahawks (53, para 1).
Monday January 26, 2015. Kraft read directly from a prepared statement to the media almost immediately after arriving at the team’s Super Bowl hotel. Kraft used bolstering, referring to the hard work it takes to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl at first then shifted to simple denial stating, “I want to make it clear that I believe, unconditionally, that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process or in violation of NFL rules” (41, para. 27). In the next paragraph, Kraft utilized a metaphor to describe his relationship with Belichick and quarterback Brady:
Tom, Bill, and I have been together for 15 years. They are my guys, they are part of my family. And Bill, Tom, and I have had many difficult discussions over the years, and I have never known them to lie to me. That is why I am confident in saying what I just said. (41, para. 28)
Kraft also chose to preemptively attack the accuser, in this case the NFL investigation into the deflated footballs on how the Wells investigation had been handled to date:
If the [Ted] Wells’ investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure in the footballs, I would expect and hope that the League would apologize to our entire team and in particular, Coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week. I am disappointed in the way this entire matter has been handled and reported upon. We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to drive the conclusion of this investigation. (41, para. 30)
Therefore, while Belichick used transcendence to avoid talking about Deflategate, Kraft became the aggressor and attacked those suggesting his organization had done something wrong.
RQ3 addressed the effectiveness of the New England Patriots’ communication strategies in the short term. In assessing the success of such image repair efforts, it is necessary to consider public opinion of the individuals or organizations involved in an offensive event. It is not coincidence that the Patriots’ 30% favorability rating was the lowest of all NFL teams prior to Super Bowl XLIX, in part because of the franchise’s nefarious past (25). Further, Coach Belichick garnered a 34% unfavorable rating (41% among NFL fans) while 45% of respondents (31% of NFL fans) answered not sure (25). After the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, ESPN/ABC Sports contracted Langer Research Associates for a scientific survey that found 52% of all sports fans and 63% of avid NFL fans believed the Patriots cheated with only 10% of all sports fans and 3% of avid NFL fans holding no opinion. The same ESPN/ABC News poll revealed that 85% of respondents believed the Patriots were not alone in cheating or bending the rules and that other teams engaged in activities “pushing the envelope in some form” (1, para. 6).
A separate poll of sports fans (using convenience sampling) in 2015 by si.com found Belichick was the most hated coach in the NFL and the Patriots were the most hated franchise among the league’s 32 teams (55). While some of this may be attributable to the Patriots’ success over the years, one would suspect at least some of the vitriol stemmed from the Deflategate controversy and that the Patriots were seen as trying to cheat their way (again) to victory. However, the previously mentioned ESPN/ABC News poll found that only 42% of avid sports fans and 46% of all fans believed the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory was tainted due to the ongoing Deflategate controversy (1, para. 6). The significant drop in popularity, even after winning the Super Bowl, by the New England Patriots causes us to judge the organizational image repair efforts as a somewhat ineffective rhetorical strategy among the broad public. However, popular press polls (si.com) have shown that a nonrandom sample of sports fans, the one that frequent si.com, don’t view the Patriots’ victory to be tainted leading us to conclude that while the Patriots eventually were found guilty, the rhetorical strategy used was somewhat effective for targeted sports fans. It should also be noted the rhetorical strategies were used to redirect attention on the Super Bowl.
Analysis of Image Repair Strategies
When comparing Belichick (RQ1) and Kraft’s (RQ2) image repair efforts at the start of Deflategate, Belichick utilized the most strategies, due in part to the numerous times he appeared before reporters. Types of image repairs employed by Belichick evolved as the controversy received greater national attention. For example, Belichick only employed simple denial and corrective action in the initial days after the AFC championship game. By Thursday, January 22, Belichick was forced to spend more time discussing the controversy because of mounting national attention. While Belichick continued employing simple denial and corrective action, the coach shifted to evading responsibility. This is seen in Belichick’s effort to shift blame (e.g., suggesting players know more than coaches concerning the pressure level in footballs), bolstering (e.g., his team was the best team, despite the quality of the footballs used), and transcendence (e.g., his team needed to start focusing on playing Seattle in the Super Bowl). In Belichick’s other meetings with the media on January 24 and 26, simple denial, bolstering, and transcendence remained the primary tactics. Belichick’s January 24 meeting was notable, however, because it also featured use of defeasibility. He attempted to explain that it was impossible for the balls to have been deflated by anyone with the Patriots’ organization.
Patriots’ owner Kraft addressed Deflategate only once, on January 26, during Super Bowl week. Kraft was more aggressive in his comments than Belichick choosing to attack the accuser (in this case, the allegations against his franchise). Kraft also employed simple denial, bolstering, and good intentions in addressing the controversy.
When seeking commonalities in the various image repair attempts, we note Belichick and Kraft tried to end the story as the second week of Super Bowl preparations approached. Belichick used transcendence to emphasize the teams’ focus on the game against Seattle. Belichick also spent time bolstering his team’s abilities and that the team’s performance against Indianapolis should not be overshadowed by the Deflategate controversy. A final similarity is that both Belichick and Kraft declined to answer questions about Deflategate after the initial Monday media appearance when the team landed in Phoenix for Super Bowl preparations. Belichick did address media questions and eventually refused to address any questions. It can be suggested that as the Super Bowl game drew closer, journalists covering the contest went along with the Patriots’ narrative and focused more on the contest, especially since the league had announced that the investigation was likely to take weeks, if not months.
We also note the lack of mortification expressed by any of the two individuals studied for this research. Benoit (4, 7) has found mortification (expressing regret for what has happened) to be particularly useful in image repair, especially for those who enjoyed prominence as celebrities (such as professional athletes and coaches) (5). Yet, there was no use of mortification in any of the media appearances by Belichick or Kraft. This could be an error, particularly as people were already familiar with the Patriots’ past transgressions during the Spygate affair in 2007. However, this could be a strategic choice to shift blame of ball preparation unto Quarterback Tom Brady and other team personal or NFL officials. Further, given the investigation (and proceeding legal battle) mortification could be an admission of guilt. However, it is the belief of the authors that one of the Patriots’ team leaders (Belichick or Kraft) could have expressed mortification over the matter and that this controversy was overshadowing the team’s excellence on the playing field or the NFL’s largest event, the Super Bowl.
The Deflategate episode illustrates the importance of not just the team owner, but other figures at the top of the organizational chart in times of controversy. In this case, the most visible was Head Coach Bill Belichick. In comparing Belichick’s strategies in Deflategate to New Orleans Coach Sean Payton in Bountygate, corrective action and simple denial are common between the two situations. However, while Payton (and the Saints’ General Manager) pledged corrective action, Belichick sought to evade responsibility, using transcendence (e.g., the importance of the upcoming Super Bowl) and shifting blame (the team personnel seemingly involved). Another significant difference appears to be the role of the owners in these two cases. While Coach Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis spoke for Owner Tom Benson, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was vocal, attacking the accusers of his team and denying the organization was involved with tampering with the footballs used in the AFC Championship game. The strategies employed by Belichick and Kraft were done to protect the organization, and more specifically, the team’s players on the eve of their most important game of the season. As the Saints were dealing with Bountygate, there were no “big game” distractions that the Coach or General Manager could use in their image repair. While we judged the image repair strategies of Belichick and Kraft to be generally ineffectual because of the long-term impact on the organization’s image, it served the purpose of refocusing the team on the Super Bowl game before them. Our study also demonstrates the need to continue studying sports organizations (whether individual franchises or entire leagues), and not just individuals, when crises occur.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
While the Patriots’ overall effectiveness in image repair was considered only somewhat effective, we have noted the short-term nature of the strategies used: That the team’s focus returned solely to preparation for the upcoming Super Bowl showdown with the Seahawks. In future situations where a team (or organization) is embroiled in controversy, finding ways to quickly return the public’s attention to immediate team goals can prove beneficial (i.e., preparing for an important game).
- Americans think Pats cheated, rooting for Seahawks (2015, January 27). publicpolicypolling.com. Available from http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2015/01/ americans-think-pats-cheated-rooting-for-seahawks.html
- Badenhausen, K. (2017, September 18). The Dallas Cowboys head the NFL’s most valuable teams at $4.8 billion. Forbes. Available from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen /2017/09/18/the-dallas-cowboys-head-the-nfls-most-valuable-teams-at-4-8-billion/#93aaef3243f8
- Belichick draws $500,000 fine, but avoids suspension (2007, September 14). espn.com. Available from http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3018338
- Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Benoit, W. L. (1997). Hugh Grant’s image restoration discourse: An actor apologizes. Communication Quarterly, 45(3), 251-267. doi:10.1080/01463379709370064.
- Benoit, W. L. (2013). Tiger Woods’ image repair: Could he hit one out of the rough. In J.R. Blaney, L.R. Lippert, & J.S. Smith (Eds.), Repairing the athlete’s image: Studies in sports image restoration (pp. 89-96). Lanham, MD: Lexington.
- Benoit, W. L. (2015). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: Image repair theory and research (2nd ed.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Benoit, W. L., & Anderson, K. K. (1996). Blending politics and entertainment: Dan Quayle versus Murphy Brown. Southern Communication Quarterly, 62, 73-85. doi:10.1080/10417949609373040
- Benoit, W. L., & Czerwinski, A. (1997). A critical analysis of USAir’s image repair discourse. Business Communication Quarterly, 60, 38-57. doi: 10.1177/108056999706000304
- Benoit, W. L., & Hanczor, R. S. (1994). The Tonya Harding controversy: An analysis ofimage restoration strategies. Communication Quarterly, 42(4), 416-433. doi:10.1080/01463379409369947
- Benoit, W. L., & Lindsey, J. J. (1987). Argument strategies: Antidote to Tylenol’s poisoned image. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 23, 136-146. doi:10.1080/00028533.1987.11951338
- Benoit, W. L., & Wells, W. T. (1998). An analysis of three image repair discourses on White-water. Journal of Public Advocacy, 3, 21-37.
- Bill Belichick Transcript – 1/20/2015 (2015, January 20). Retrieved from http://www.patriots.com/news/2015/01/20/bill-belichick-transcript-1202015Blaney, J. R., Benoit, W. L., & Brazeal, L. M. (2002). Blowout! Firestone’s image restoration campaign. Public Relations Research, 28, 379-392. doi:10.1016/s0363-8111(02)00163-7
- Blaney, J. R., Lippert, L. R., & Smith, J. S. (2012). Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
- Brinson, S. L., & Benoit, W. L. (1996). Dow Corning’s image repair strategies in the breast implant crisis. Communication Quarterly, 44, 29-41. doi:10.1080/01463379609369998
- Brinson, S. L., & Benoit, W. L. (1999). The tarnished star: Restoring Texaco’s damaged public image. Management Communication Quarterly, 12, 483–510. doi:10.1177/089331899912401
- Burke, K. (1970). Rhetoric of religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Creswell, J. W. (1997). Qualitative Inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Deflategate timeline: After 544 days, Tom Brady gives in. (2016, July 15). Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/blog/new-england-patriots/post/_/id/4782561/timeline-of-events-for-deflategate-tom-brady
- Deflate-Gate: New England Patriots coach says team will cooperate with probers. (2015, January 19, 2015). Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/deflate-gate-engrland-patriots-coach-team-cooperate=probers/story?id=28330108
- Fisher, W. R. (1970). A motive view of communication. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 56, 131-139. doi:10.1080/00335637009382994
- Fortunato, J. A. (2008). Restoring a reputation: The Duke University lacrosse scandal. Public Relations Review, 34, 116-123. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2008.03.006
- Huxman, S. S., & Bruce, D. B., (1995). Toward a dynamic generic framework of apologia: A case study of Dow Chemical, Vietnam, and the Napalm controversy. Communication Studies, 46, 57 – 72. doi:10.1080/10510979509368439
- Jenson, T. (2017). Americans Come Together On Hating The Patriots. Available from: https://www.publicpolicypolling.com/polls/americans-come-together-on-hating-the-patriots/
- Jin, Y., Park, S-A, & Len-Rios, M. E. (2010). Strategic communication of hope and anger: A case of Duke University’s conflict management with multiple publics. Public Relations Review, 36, 63-65. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2009.08.015
- Judge rules in favor of Tom Brady in Deflategate; NFL appeals decision (2015, September 3). espn.com. Available from http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/13570716/tom-brady-new-england-patriots-wins-appeal-nfl-deflategate
- Kennedy, K. A., & Benoit, W. L. (1997). The Newt Gingrich book deal controversy: Self-defense rhetoric. Southern Communication Journal, 62, 197-216. doi:10.1080/10417949709373055
- Kruse, N. W. (1981). Apologia in team sport. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 67, 270-283. doi:10.1080/00335638109383572
- Len-Ríos, M. E. (2010). Image repair strategies, local news portrayals, and crisis stage: A case study of Duke University’s lacrosse team crisis. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 4(4), 267-287. doi:10.1080/1553118X.2010.515534
- Mark Brunell on why he reacted so strongly to Brady’s press conference. (2015, January 25). Retrieved from http://www.si.com/nfl/2015/01/25/media-circus-mark-brunell-tom-brady-deflategate
- McGuire, J., McKinnon, L., & Wanta, W. (2012). “Big Mac” with a side of steroids: Image restoration strategies of Mark McGwire. In J.R. Blaney, L.R. Lippert, & J.S. Smith (Eds.). Repairing the athlete’s image: Studies in sports image restoration (pp. 122-141). Lanham, MD: Lexington
- McLaughlin, E. C. (2015, January 23). What the heck is Deflategate anyway? Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/22/us/nfl-patriots-deflategate-rules/
- Morton, V. (2017, February 5). Patriots owner disses Roger Goodell, NFL during trophy presentation. Retrieved from http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/feb/5/robert-kraft-disses-roger-goodell-nfl-during-troph/
- Muralidharan, S., Dillistone, K., & Shin, J.-H. (2011). The Gulf Coast oil spill: Extending the theory of image restoration discourse to the realm of social media and beyond petroleum. Public Relations Review, 37, 226-232. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.04.006
- NFL suspends Tom Brady for 4 games (12 May, 2015). espn.com. Available from http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/12867594/punishments-handed-tom-brady-new-england-patriots-deflategate
- Onwumechili, C., & Bedeau, K. (2017). Analysis of FIFA’s attempt at image repair. Communication & Sport, 5(4), 407-427.doi:10.1177/2167479516633843
- Patriot Quotes 1/19: Bill Belichick, McDaniels, Patricia and more. (2015, January 19). Retrieved from http://www.patriots.com/news/2015/01/19/patriots-quotes-119-bill-belichick-mcdaniels-patricia-and-more
- Patriot Quotes 1/22: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and more. (2015, January 22). Retrieved from http://www.patriots.com/news/2015/01/22/patriots-quotes-122-bill-belichick-tom-brady-and-more
- Patriot Quotes 1/24: Bill Belichick, Matthew Slater and more. (2015, January 24). Retrieved from http://www.patriots.com/news/2015/01/24/patriots-quotes-124-bill-belichick-matthew-slater-and-more
- Patriot Quotes 1/26: Tom Brady and more. (2015, January 26). Retrieved from http://www.patriots.com/news/2015/01/26/patriots-quotes-126-tom-brady-and-more
- Pfahl, M. E., & Bates, B. R. (2008). This is not a race, this is a farce: Formula One and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tire crisis. Public Relations Review, 34, 135-144. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2008.03.019
- Richards Jr., O., Wilson, C., Boyle, K., & Mower, J. (2017). A knockout to the NFL’s reputation? A case study of the NFL’s crisis communications strategies in response to the Ray Rice scandal. Public Relations Review, 43, 615-623. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2017.02.015
- Rule 2: The Ball, Section 1. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://static.nfl.com/static/content/public/image/rulebook/pdfs/5_2013_Ball.pdf
- Ryan, H. R. (1982). Kategoria and apologia: On their rhetorical criticism as a speech set. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 68, 256-261.
- Sanderson, J. (2008). The blog is serving its purpose: Self-presentation strategies on 38pitches.com. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(4), 912-936. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2008.00424.x
- Schultz, P. D., & Seeger, M. W. (1991). Corporate centered apologia: Iacocca in defense of Chrysler. Speaker and Gavel, 28, 50-60.
- Scott, M. B., & Lyman, S. M. (1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review, 33(1), 46-62.
- Sellnow, T. L., & Ulmer, R. R. (1995). Ambiguous argument as advocacy in organizational crisis communication. Argumentation and Advocacy, 31, 138-150. doi:10.1080/00028533.1995.11951607
- Smith, J. S. (in press). Adapting to the digital age: ESPN’s crisis communication during the 2015 to 2017 layoffs. In G. G. Armfield, J. McGuire, & A. Earnheardt (Eds.). ESPN and the changing sports media landscape. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
- Smith, M. D. (2015, January 22). Deflategate leads all three network newscasts. Retrieved from http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2015/01/22/deflategate-leads-all-three-network-newscasts/
- Smithson, J., & Venette, S. (2013). Stonewalling as an image-defense strategy: A critical examination of BP’s response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Communication Studies, 64(4), 395-410. doi:10.1080/10510974.2013.770409
- Statement from Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft. (2015, January 24). Retrieved from http://www.patriots.com/news/2015/01/24/statement-patriots-chairman-and-ceo-robert-kraft
- Stone, A. (2015, January 24). Bill Belichick dropped science knowledge in surreal press conference. Retrieved from http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/01/bill-belichick-dropped-physics-knowledge-in-surreal-press-conference
- The most hated people, places and things in the NFL (July 23, 2015). SI.com. Available from http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/01/bill-belichick-dropped-physics-knowledge-in-surreal-press-conference
- Ware, B. L., & Linkugel, W. A. (1973). They spoke in defense of themselves: On the generic criticism of apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59, 273-283. doi:10.1080/00335637309383176
- Wenner, L. A. (2013). Fallen sports heroes, media, & celebrity culture. Peter Lang: New York.
- Zhang, W., & Benoit, W. L. (2009). Former Minister Zhang’s discourse on SARS: Government’s image restoration or destruction? Public Relations Review, 35, 240-246. DOI: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2009.04.004.