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Sports Leadership in the 21st Century, Second Edition Laura J. Burton, PhD, Gregory M. Kane, PhD, and John F. Borland, PhD


Active Listening and Anthem Protests One of the objectives of this chapter is to understand the different types of leadership communication tactics. Active listening is one tactic that leaders can use to show their empathy to those in their organization, according to chapter author Michael Mudrick. When considering the National Anthem protests that took place during the National Football League’s 2017-2018 season, it would be instructive to look at the reactions of two NFL owners to these protests lodged by the players. In mid-October 2017, speaking at a meeting attended by NFL team owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair reportedly said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” in response to NFL players taking a knee during the Anthem (Daniels, 2017). Following the comments, Texans Coach Bill O’Brien, Assistant Coach Romeo Crennel, and General Manager Rick Smith met with players. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins did not attend the meeting, having left the practice facility. Later in the locker room, tackle Duane Brown told reporters that McNair’s remarks “sickened me. … I’m very upset” (Breer, 2017, para. 12). Acknowledging the backlash, McNair apologized: “I regret that I used that expression. I never meant to offend anyone, and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally. I would never characterize our players or our league that way, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it” (Breer, 2017, para. 6).

There are degrees of active listening. Some leaders show more empathy than others. Enter Martha Ford, the owner of the Detroit Lions. After week 3 of the NFL’s slate of games, she asked her players to no longer kneel during the Anthem. Although Ford had linked arms during the singing of the Anthem, she told players she thought that there were better ways to address social injustice. In exchange for not kneeling any longer, Ford told her players that she would be willing to lend her name and pocketbook to any community issues the players deem fit to support. Lions running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Cornelius Washington said the trade-off in honoring Ford’s request has the potential to be worthwhile if she keeps her word and helps the players have a more direct impact on problems they see in their community (Birkett, 2017).

Looking at the two cases, one leader acknowledged the players’ concerns and one did not. One leader took an empathetic approach and actively listened to the players to find a compromise. In the end, the players said that they felt satisfied with the outcome. Ford has been acting owner of the Lions since 2014 when her husband died and is clearly not part of the ’ol boys club of NFL owners. According to Sports Illustrated writer Albert Breer, McNair’s comments reflect a long-held perception that owners have of the players. Former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm once told players union head Gene Upshaw, “You guys are cattle and we’re the ranchers, and ranchers can always get more cattle” (Breer, 2017, para. 8). This perception is not limited to the NFL. Donald Sterling, the disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA, once remarked about his players: “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?” (Levin, 2014, para. 2). Sterling’s comments contained disturbing racial overtones, which led National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver to ban him from the league. McNair’s comments, though not as offensive, contained racial overtones. Although McNair claims to respect his players, it was clear that Sterling did not. Chapter author Mudrick writes below that leadership communication is “communication that influences others’ actions and attitudes, thus resulting in the fulfillment of a shared purpose or need” (Billings, Butterworth, & Turman, 2015, p. 158). Ford of the Lions seemingly did her best to listen to players to fulfill their needs off of the field. In return, she convinced them to take more direct action against social injustice. McNair of the Texans engaged in communication that clearly did not have a positive influence on the players or result in any fulfillment of a shared purpose among the players. Finally, Sterling took full credit for controlling his players’ fulfillment. Readers can judge for themselves which of the three exhibited true leadership through empathetic communication and active listening.

In May of 2018, the NFL owners instituted a new rule regarding standing for the National Anthem. The owners decided that players on the field are required to stand for the anthem. If they do not want to stand for the anthem, they can remain in the locker room.

Questions for Discussion 1. Based on this case and what you know about professional sports communication hierarchy, what direction of communication seems most prevalent? Explain.

2. What leadership style did Ford display in this National Anthem case? Please connect her actions to her style.

3. Which image repair strategies did McNair use following his “inmates” comment? Were these strategies successful in your opinion?

4. Are there other strategies that McNair could have employed to display leadership beyond an apology released by the Texans to the media?

5. Based on information provided in the chapter with regard to crises, does the McNair/inmates’ communication rise to the level of a crisis? Why or why not?


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