On the Bench: The NFL needs to send a clear message to the media

On Super Bowl LIII’s Opening Night on Monday, Rob Gronkowski, tight-end of the New England Patriots, was up to his usual antics, dancing and joking around with reporters. But one of his responses during this press conference stirred quite a bit of controversy. When reporters asked Gronkowski what the chances are of him retiring from the league, he responded, “You guys know my favorite number. You know what I’m talking about. She knows what number I’m talking about. Ask her [pointing to a female reporter who was amused by his response]. That’s the answer.”

He went on to explain his favorite number he was referring to with a math problem of “6 times 9 plus 6 plus 9”. The number in question “69”, is as a number usually referenced in a sexual context. A live broadcasted family-centered event was not exactly the time or place to reference this as many children were in attendance and ask questions to these players. This isn’t the first time that Gronk stepped over this line. At the event on Monday alone, he told an Emory student who invited him to a fraternity party that he might attend, wore a sombrero while answering questions and, while pulled into an embrace on stage, said he was sorry he was “motorboating” the announcer.

According to the NFL’s Media Access policy, each team’s public relations staff must hold annual media training for all players and coaches, with a special session for rookies. If that’s the case, then why are players like Gronk constantly acting inappropriately at these business events and conferences? The media generally enjoys this slightly controversial side of Gronk since it’s fun and ensures readership, but it needs to be clear when this side of him is allowed and in what context. I think it comes down to what the NFL wants to portray. This Super Bowl Opening Night event used to be a Media Day for all media outlets, local and national, to attend and ask players, coaches and support staff about the big game ahead. But now, it’s a media circus that fans can attend and ask questions as well. All of the footage from this event features heavy sponsorships, special stations for the players to take questions from and music blaring throughout. It’s a spectacle in itself and a major part of the NFL’s entertainment-first vision of the sport.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a fun event that fans can participate in and get a glimpse of their favorite stars on the field. But there needs to be some separation between a serious media conference for the press and an all-fun spectacle of ridiculous questions that fans can ask to their heart’s content. It was made even more painfully obvious that the players are as confused as most of us on how they are supposed to act during this event. Some players and most coaches were completely professional, answering questions with poise and focusing on the game. Others, namely Gronk, Tom Brady and more were goofing off, signing memorabilia and answering questions they probably wouldn’t normally answer, in plain language and in good spirits. I understand that the NFL has built itself and its players to celebrity status but there needs to be a bottom-line. Either train your players to act professional consistently, or make it clear which events serve what purpose and how players should act accordingly.

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