The industry was ascendant. Triumphant. Earning billions of dollars. Producing a product enjoyed by millions of people on a daily basis. There was just one problem: according to a growing body of scientific evidence, said product was also causing unpalatable long-term harm, provoking public debate and calls for government intervention.
The consultant had a solution. Not to the problem itself. To the controversy. The sour taste. The potential regulation, mostly. It's not what you say, his company's motto went, but what they hear. And so he taught the industry and its allies how to talk. Explain your plan in terms of the future, he counseled. Ignore the past and present. Use reassuring words like "safer" and "healthier," and concepts like "responsibility" and "accountability." Remind listeners that the scientific debate remains open. In fact, make that a primary issue. Recruit and defer to experts sympathetic to your point of view. Caution against rushing to judgment before all the facts are in. Emphasize the need to ask more questions (later) and find more answers (later still). Posit hopeful, unspecific, date-TBD remedies born of technological breakthroughs, cross-industry teamwork and good ol' fashioned American common sense.
And no, the above does not describe the National Football League and brain trauma.
To the contrary, it describes how Republican politicians and the energy industry learned how to speak to the public about global warming -- a term the same consultant suggested be replaced by "climate change," because the latter sounds less frightening. Which is true. And awfully helpful if you're a lawmaker or lobbyist opposing carbon caps. It's not what you say. It's what they hear. The consultant's name is Frank Luntz. He's an inside-the-Beltway All-Star, a Republican strategist and professional persuader, a key player in the GOP's 1994 and 2010 Congressional victories, the man behind referring to the inheritance tax as a "death tax," oil drilling as "energy exploration" and corporations as "job creators." Oh, and that's not all. According to a ThinkProgress report, Luntz's communications firm recently was scheduled to hold a focus group in suburban Washington, D.C. to gauge public sentiment about the NFL and the Washington Redskins' ongoing nickname controversy -- a politics-to-sports messaging crossover that's hardly as unusual as it seems.
Do you enjoy Washington's ceaseless spin wars, pre-scripted talking points of struggle and flight, and pundit armies clashing by day and night?
Do you want a little more Fox News and MSNBC with your Big Ten Network and ESPN?
Do you ever wish NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's press conferences were a little more like those given by White House spokesman Jay Carney?
Sorry. You're out of luck. Almost a decade ago, news that former George W. Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd was both polling for and providing advice to the National Basketball Association qualified as, well, news. Not anymore. Not when Beltway-style message massaging has come to sports, and come in a big way. During the recent NFL lockout, both owners and players hired Washington lobbying and public relations firms to make their cases to the public. Following his 2009 admission of steroid use, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez hired a firm run by former Republican campaign staffers to handle his damage control efforts. A group of plaintiffs in the current concussion lawsuits against the NFL have hired a Washington-based communications firm. Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer -- best-remembered for selling the Iraq War (oy), and still a regular political talking head on cable news (and you thought NBA coaches were recycled) -- is enjoying a successful second career as a sports communications consultant, working for the Green Bay Packers (during their divorce from Brett Favre), Tiger Woods (post- "huge, quickly, bye" ), Mark McGwire (pre-steroid mea culpa), Major League Baseball (the Mitchell Report, Barry Bonds' home run chase), the NFL and the Bowl Championship Series (again, when you've sold Iraq, you can sell anything). Similarly, Luntz lists the Indiana Pacers and Yankees as corporate clients on his company's website, and reportedly has conducted personal research for the NFL ( on concussions) and the NHL ( during the recent lockout).
Why are sports entities turning to Washington flacks? Better question: given the proliferation of contentious issues like performance-enhancing drug use, concussions and the Redskins' nickname -- and given that the entire business of sports is dependent on public opinion and goodwill -- why wouldn't they?
"People are realizing that this kind of messaging can have a really big impact on outcomes," says Patrick Sellers, a political science professor at Davidson College and author of "Cycles of Spin: Strategic Communication in the U.S. Congress." "That's one of the reasons they're bringing in professional help, people who do crisis management and strategic planning for a living. So many conflicts in sports now play out in public -- and if you have the public behind you, you have more leverage in negotiations."
From in-depth opinion polls to infinite-loop talking points, consultants such as Luntz bring a number of familiar campaign tricks to the task of helping clients convince sports fans that, say, the BCS was actually a great idea that should be resurrected. The most important of these tools? A concept known as framing. Broadly speaking, framing is the selective use of words and ideas to describe a thing, notion or argument. In the political arena, New York Times reporter Matt Bai summarizes framing as: (a) choosing language to define the terms and parameters of a debate; (b) fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. Both notions are crucial. Also note: framing involves neither wild exaggerations nor bald-faced lies. It is not claiming that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or that the infidel tanks at the Baghdad airport have been destroyed. It's far subtler than Joe Isuzu. Rather than tell you what to think about an issue, a good frame tells you how to think about an issue without you even realizing it. Imagine a playground slide, with a speaker's desired persuasive outcome at the bottom. Framing places you at top, feet pointed down. Sheer, simple gravity seems to do the rest.
Consider the term "tax relief," a longtime political favorite. As cognitive linguist and political consultant George Lakoff explains, the word "relief" carries a conceptual frame involving an affliction, a victim of said affliction and someone providing relief. Within the frame, that someone is a hero. Anyone opposing them is a villain. Now add the word "tax." Voila! Taxation becomes an affliction -- as opposed to a method of paying for fighter jets, schools, streetlights and other public goods -- and political proponents of "tax relief" (typically Republicans) become ennobled. Meanwhile, opponents (usually Democrats) wear an unwitting black hat. No matter the specifics of the tax policies being debated. The argument is largely settled before it ever starts. Indeed, while political messaging experts put time, effort, thought and -- especially -- money into crafting and disseminating frames, their effect is largely subconscious. From framing seeds bloom unthinking biases. Again, here's Bai in the New York Times:
… in Lakoff's view, not only does [framing] language twist the facts of [an] agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff's vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, [politicians] have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them …
When Senate Democrats were fighting to preserve minority filibuster powers in 2005, Bai reports, they didn't frame the issue as a way to block the appointment of conservative judges by a Republican majority -- even though that was what the two parties were squabbling over in the first place. Instead, they talked about the filibuster as "an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks" while accusing Republicans of "waging an unprecedented power grab," "changing the rules in the middle of the game" and "attacking our historic system of checks and balances." Ahem. In reality the constitutional notion of checks and balances refers to the three branches of government, not parliamentary procedure. Moreover, Bai notes, it was actually Senate Democrats who had broken with tradition by using the filibuster to block an entire slate of judges. But forget pesky facts. The frame worked. The Democrats carried the day. They expected to. After all, their pollsters had previously discovered that about 70 percent of voters supported their filibuster position when it was presented not as an ideological weapon, but rather as a matter of fundamental, nonpartisan fairness, a backstop against majority tyranny.
"Once [political consultants] have a really good understanding of what the fundamental issues are, they come up with a range of possible arguments and take those to focus groups," Sellers says. "They give the arguments to see which ones work and which ones don't, and try to understand why. Then they go out and try them in polls and surveys and see whether or not their expectations are met. Some surveys will ask half of the recipients one version of an arguments and half another -- and sometimes, even adding one word to a statement can make a huge difference."
A first-hand account published by Deadspin details how the same process works in sports. During the early days of the 2012 NHL lockout, Luntz held a Friday night focus group in the Washington suburbs. His task? Figure out what hockey fans think and feel -- and then use that knowledge to craft and tweak a message that would frame the work stoppage to the advantage of league owners:
...with the room packed with microphones, and Luntz Global staff and most likely a league rep watching from behind a one-way mirror, Frank Luntz did what Frank Luntz does the best -- focus in on the incredibly specific terms and concepts that have the most impact ...
… the focus group watched a series of televised speeches from players, owners, executives, and the commissioner himself. From the room's reaction, and Luntz's follow-up questions, it was clear that the group did not have a favorable impression of Gary Bettman. "A New York lawyer," one participant called him. Jonathan Gatehouse's Bettman bio points out how many times this specific phrase has been leveled at the commissioner, usually with the unspoken descriptor "Jewish." (Editor's note: another frame). As if to hammer this point home, one focus group participant said: "I don't like him. He reminds me of Woody Allen."
Deputy commissioner and chief legal officer Bill Daly tested much better. He was seen as more "blue collar" …
Remember: NHL players weren't on strike. The league was locking them out -- for the third time in less than two decades, no less -- because owners wanted a bigger piece of the game's revenue pie. Of course, those same owners didn't want to be perceived by the ticket-buying public as villains, because that could decrease their leverage in collective bargaining negotiations. Moreover, the NHL also didn't want to pin all of the lockout blame on its players, not when fans would be expected to root for those same players once the sport returned.
Enter Luntz, who gave group attendees a series of trial balloon speeches from the perspective of a league executive:
… his speech would use the key terms that rated well with [the group], and repeatedly hammer them home. From the content of these speeches, one participant gleaned the phrases and concepts the NHL might use going forward. The league is eager to portray individual players as not in step with the union, claiming that the majority of them don't believe or don't buy into the rhetoric used by Donald Fehr and NHLPA leaders, and that they just want to play hockey. "The players are not the enemy," the NHL may very well tell you. "The union is the problem."
As for the owners' slogan, one laughable phrase kept coming up: "Shared sacrifice."
"Maybe we asked for too much at first," Luntz's mock-NHL-exec speech went, "but we're willing to give. The NHLPA has to be willing to give as well, if we're going to give the fans back their hockey. There's no way we're going to do this without both sides bringing something to the table" …
Fault the union. Not individual players. Definitely not the league. At the beginning of the session, attendees were asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 whom they sided with in the lockout, players or management? At the end, they were asked the same thing. "No question," an attendee told Deadspin, "the group had a much better opinion of the owners." And why not? "Shared sacrifice" implied that owners and players were equally to blame for the problem of no hockey, and equally responsible for the solution. Frame set. Mission accomplished. Even though locking out your workforce to demand lower salaries and then slightly reducing the magnitude of said demand is neither sharing nor sacrifice.
Factually speaking, that is.
Such is the power of framing. A power anyone can harness. During the NFL lockout, players faced a media-fueled frame that in many ways was similar to "shared sacrifice": millionaires versus billionaires. A bunch of rich guys squabbling over more money than an average fan could ever dream of spending, all while putting football entertainment programming at risk. A frame that made owners and players seem jointly selfish and at fault. In response, the players' union and its communications consultants devised a simple, three-word slogan that also served as a counter-frame. Let Us Play. Perfect. No mention of money. Just football. Just athletes wanting and asking to play the same sport fans love watching -- the same sport they'd be playing right now if not for owners choosing to stand in the way, like a stubborn teacher not allowing his or her class to enjoy recess. Fixing owners as blame-worthy obstructionists, the "Let Us Play" frame placed players on the side of fans. And on the side of the game itself.
"It really is perfect," Sellers says. "Some argument with salary structures, long-term deals, the public doesn't care about that. They just want to see football. And another part of framing is complexity of arguments. Simple arguments just work better. You don't want the federal budget boiled down to a bumper sticker. But that's what gets in people's head."
When losing on the field, what do teams do? They force slower opponents to play faster. They pack the paint and dare the team with the dominant center to shoot three-pointers. They work to change the game. What do sports entities do when losing public relations battles? They work to change the frame. Following a 2004 Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl that became a major national story, the NBA faced sagging ratings and apparel sales. The league hired Dowd, the former Bush pollster, to conduct focus groups of people who said they weren't basketball fans. Participants reportedly said they regarded NBA players as "thugs." Shortly thereafter, the league instituted a dress code and a "no whining" rule for player-referee interaction, two changes that according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski allowed commissioner David Stern to appease "the casual fan's need to see him frame himself as the law-and-order commissioner." The NBA's new frame? Thugs R'nt Us. (I'll leave the fairly obvious racial under-and-overtones to the comment section below).
Retired baseball slugger Mark McGwire exited the 2005 Congressional steroid hearings as a laughingstock, a shrunken, evasive man who wasn't here to talk about the past. When he later told Bob Costas that he used PEDs -- but only to recover from injuries -- his partial confession was stage-managed by Fleischer. In a subsequent interview with Sports Illustrated, the former Bush spokesman was quick to establish a frame. "Even if [McGwire] said, 'I took steroids to aid performance,' he'd have had the same amount of criticism," Fleischer told the magazine. "The bottom line was he came clean." See the cognitive sleight of hand? McGwire came clean. The messy details are irrelevant. Everyone move on. Fleischer also was on hand for the release of baseball's Mitchell Report, a name-heavy, evidence-light document produced to accomplish two similar, let's-put-this-whole-thing-behind-us goals: (a) defining a Steroid Era, past-tense; (b) rewriting the narrative of a tainted sport into the story of tainted, bad-apple players. Asked about the report by the New York Daily News, Fleischer drove the latter frame home:
[Daily News]: Dozens of players took a big PR hit as a result of the Mitchell Report, and some critics say that is unfair because there was less scrutiny of managers and front-office people. Is that a fair assessment?
[Fleischer]: If Senator Mitchell found evidence of management being more involved, he would have said so. At the end of the day, it all comes down to individual responsibility. At the end of the day, if you put something in your body, you did it. You were responsible. (Bold added).
"Part of this has to do with the listener not being aware that the language and words are carefully crated," Sellers says. "If you're not aware, you're more likely to accept the frame. It's an effort to set your mindset.
"In politics, I think people are increasingly aware of politicians trying to spin and frame things. That produces cynicism. The public ends up dismissing everything politicians say. But I don't know if fans are aware that sports has started to engage in this, that these are not straightforward arguments but professionals trying to shape the issues."
Baseball is booming. So is the NBA. The once-disgraced McGwire is a Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach. Phrases like "climate change" have hardly lost their power. Is the public aware of framing? Maybe. Does that awareness matter as much as Sellers thinks? Maybe not. After all, politicians use framing for the same reason athletes use synthetic testosterone: because it works. Expect more of it. More Beltway-to-Fenway consultant crossovers, too. There are issues to win. Frames to create. Hefty consulting fees to invoice.
"Political advisers are very entrepreneurial," Sellers says. "They've been going overseas for years, advising elections in Israel and Russia. Sports is another market for them, and there's a lot of money there."
The opportunities seem endless. Is the Redskins' nickname an ethnic slur? Or is it an inoffensive term that only refers to a football team, conveys athletic pride and isn't intended to hurt anyone's feelings? If the former frame wins, then supporting the nickname becomes cruel and immoral. If the latter frame prevails, then the same support becomes right and just, even heroic, the protection of a cherished collective good from attackers with an illegitimate beef.
Or take brain trauma in football. There's no way to frame concussions as positive. No way to frame an alleged failure to disclose workplace risk -- the basis of the more than 4,000 lawsuits filed by ex-players against the NFL -- as responsible. All of which puts the sport in a serious pickle, staring down threats to its bottom line, cultural cachet and future growth. So what is the NFL doing? Rolling out what Ad Age describes as "advertising and PR campaigns designed to position the league as positive, proactive and transparent about its key issues." In other words, attempting to reframe the debate. That means changing the name of its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to Head, Neck and Spine Committee. (Which sounds scarier to you? Which frames the issue as a matter of generalized orthopedic damage, already a widely accepted cost of playing football?) It means Goodell sounding more and more like an energy executive discussing climate change: demurring when asked to link his product to actual damage , emphasizing the need for more science and more study and touting indeterminate future technological breakthroughs. It means a frame-setting corporate slogan of Forever Forward, Forever Football that turns a blind eye to the past -- the same past your industry is getting sued over -- and posits problem-solving progress that is advancing with time. It means minor rules changes banning things like obviously purposeful helmet-to-helmet hits, pursuing a supposed pay-for-injury BountyGate case with zeal and throwing your corporate weight behind a youth football training program that purports to teach "safe" tackling.
Above all, it means pushing a single, simple idea at every opportunity. Culture change. Changing the culture of football. Why "change?" Because change implies that you can alleviate a current problem. Why "culture?" Because that defines the problem itself, and in a highly advantageous way. "Culture" implies that the fundamental risk in football is not rooted in biology and physics -- that is, the linear and rotational forces operating on the fragile, gelatinous mass of cognition and selfhood rattling around inside one's skull during the game's inevitable collisions -- but rather in attitudes and behaviors. Make that improper attitudes and behaviors. Harm comes from playing the sport with bad technique and worse intentions -- two things that can tweaked and corrected --and not from the nature of football itself. Which in turn means that the sport's owners and gatekeepers aren't liable for that harm. Not when Goodell is working tirelessly to protect players from themselves. As a league spokesman put it:
I think the NFL deserves significant credit for raising the issue, for being willing to focus on it. Commissioner Goodell has spent a significant amount of his time over the last several years drawing attention to the equipment improvements, drawing attention to the rules enforcements, specifics that will make a difference to the health and safety of the players … you've got to teach these players personal responsibility and accountability. That in the end, they can't play this game and blame the NFL when they know that they're playing hurt, they know that they're playing and they shouldn't be …
Oops. My bad. That isn't from a league spokesman. It's from Luntz, appearing on an ESPN "Outside the Lines" episode that identified him as a "NFL consultant." The same Luntz who reportedly ran focus groups for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The same Luntz who earned PolitiFact's prestigous 2010 Lie of the Year award for referring to a Democratic health care reform push as a "government takeover of health care." The same Luntz who is very, very good at his job, and who responded to Deadspin's NHL lockout story by tweeting that Research is no difft (sic) from what ppl (sic) in my field have done for sports teams/leagues/unions - trying to understand exactly what fans think/want. Oh, sure. Trying to understand. That's one way to frame it. During the same ESPN broadcast, Luntz repeatedly referred to Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon as "Walter Moon." Surprisingly, that wasn't intentional. Just a simple mistake. But no matter. It's never what you say. It's always what they hear.