I don't write about football often, and in the odd instances when I do, it usually isn't really about football. The same is true of my purposes in the words that follow.
I'm not here just to talk about BYU football. I'm here to talk about branding and how it relates to BYU football in the wake of its headline-grabbing, knock-down-drag-out brawl following the Miami Beach Bowl.
I have some semblance of expertise in this matter. You see, during the times when I'm not ranting like an insane person about one BYU basketball-related topic or another, I feed my family by working as a strategic communications consultant.
Now, you may be asking yourself, "What does that even mean?" Good question. As Steve Martin's lovable grump George Banks put it in Father of the Bride, "That's code for unemployed." However, while I respect Mr. Banks's ability to tolerate Canadian actors using horrific French accents in his presence, he is wrong — at least in this specific instance.
I am (at least for the moment) very much employed. And the people and organizations who hire the firm for which I ply my trade (usually political leaders, nonprofits and philanthropic foundations) often come to us for help crafting and/or managing the very thing I'm here to discuss — their brand.
Brand is a word that gets tossed around fairly casually, and a lot of people have different definitions for what it means. For our purposes here, we're going to define a person or organization's brand as consisting of the following elements:
1. Message. The words and phrases a person or organization uses when they communicate.
2. Image. The visuals that a person or organization uses when they communicate.
3. Action. The things that a person or organization chooses to do.
All of these elements play an integral role in the brand of a person or organization. Oftentimes they are intertwined. For example, when you see a television commercial for Nike, you're not just hearing their message ("Just Do It," most famously) — you're also seeing a strategically selected collection of images that are also meant to communicate the company's brand ethos. And this doesn't just apply to advertising — it applies to literally every instance when a person or organization chooses to communicate. Your brand is always being shaped in one way or another.
So, why am I telling you all of this? And why is this being published on a BYU sports website? Again, both good questions.
I'm telling you this because, as of Monday afternoon, BYU football has encountered a brand crisis of sorts. Reasonable individuals can differ on how significant a brand crisis the brawl in Miami was (or if "crisis" is even the appropriate word at all), but I would argue that it was not insignificant. In fact, from a public relations perspective, it was a pretty big deal.
Let me get this out of the way up front: I wasn't a huge fan of a lot of things I saw happen on that field after the final whistle blew, but I understood some of it. I understand the need to stand up for your teammate when he is under attack, as Tejan Koroma undoubtedly was. I understand the need to use physical force to remove enraged individuals from a conflict in the hope of restoring some semblance of order. And I also understand the need to protect oneself with physical force in the event that you are imminently threatened with bodily harm. I understand those things.
However, I don't understand the decision to keep fighting — and even to escalate the altercation — once your beleaguered teammate had been removed from the situation. I don't understand the instinct to run blindly into a crowd with fists swinging. And I certainly don't understand how anyone could think it's possibly a good idea to sucker punch another human being in the back of the head. (And yes, I know Kai Nacua was already bleeding from his face when he landed that punch, but he picked up that knock after charging headlong into a pile with his fists already flying. I find it hard to feel too much sympathy for him.)
Long story short: there's a line somewhere between protecting your guy and escalating an already ugly situation — and somewhere in the midst of Monday's postgame melee, that line got crossed. That doesn't mean BYU started the brawl, or even did most of the damage. (I honestly don't know.) That doesn't mean they shouldn't have protected Koroma. (They should have.) That doesn't mean there's not some justification for some of the things that happened. (There is.) But it does mean that there's certainly no justification for all of them.
And really, from a brand perspective, justification is borderline irrelevant. When it comes to big public spectacles like this (and believe me, thanks to the power of the Internet, this became a spectacle), it doesn't matter whether your actions were justified — it matters whether everyone else believes they were. For all intents and purposes, the perception of the masses becomes our shared reality, whether the conclusion is fair or not. And judging by the rapid reaction to the brawl that I've watched spread across social media over the last several hours, the masses (at least the portion who aren't already staunch BYU fans) are not giving the Cougars the benefit of the doubt.
To be sure, both sides carry plenty of blame here. Memphis did more than their fair share of ugly stuff — and many BYU fans contend that it was the Tigers who started it all in the first place. But despite their opponent being at least an equal partner in the bad behavior, it didn't take long for the joint courts of social media and public opinion to begin heaping an extra helping of blame on the Cougars.
And therein lies the problem with the whole situation for BYU. It may not be fair, but the Cougars are practically destined to receive a lion's share of the blame — and absorb the associated public relations hit — for the brawl. There are two key reasons why this narrative (which has already solidified itself on social media) was virtually unavoidable:
1. Kai Nacua's sucker punch to the back of a Memphis player's head was, by far, the brawl's most indelible image
To put this in political terms, Nacua's punch was the soundbite — the juiciest piece of tape that will get replayed over and over and over every single time this fracas comes up. In fact, one Vine of the incident has already been looped more than 250,000 times. Fair or not, Nacua is now the face of this altercation.
But wait, you might be saying. Is this really fair? After all, there were more than 100 players out there on the field, engaging in all manner of violent behavior. Is it really fair that Nacua is the one who gets singled out? How do we even know that his punch was the worst thing that happened out there?
The answer is, we don't know. Someone else could have been doing some way worse stuff that the cameras simply didn't catch. And thus, Nacua becoming the poster boy for the brawl may be unfair (although I'm already on record as being fairly unsympathetic to his plight.) But it doesn't matter. Remember, when it comes to a situation like this, perception becomes reality. Concepts like fairness and justification go out the window. Optics are everything — and the optics certainly aren't kind to Kai Nacua.
If you were watching the brawl unfold live, Nacua's sucker punch is almost certainly the one moment that stands out in your mind. Everything that happened before and after it occurred primarily in piles of players, making it difficult to really tell what was happening or who was doing what. By comparison, Nacua's punch occurs in a relatively open portion of the field. He runs in from the side of the frame and clearly attacks an unsuspecting player — an even bigger no-no than simply fighting, according to our cultural customs.
The visual creates an instant, visceral reaction for the viewer. You're shocked to see it, then a little sickened that you did. That feeling ensures that anyone who saw the punch will remember it — and they'll also remember Kai Nacua wearing a BYU jersey when he did it. And thus, whether it's been done consciously or not, that association with the fight's most traumatic, vicious and dangerous moment has resulted in BYU shouldering more of the blame than Memphis from the court of public opinion — regardless of whether it's fair.
2. People hold BYU to a higher standard of behavior than other schools, like Memphis
This second one really shouldn't be too surprising — and contrary to what some BYU fans will tell you through the haze of their paralyzing persecution complex, it's not totally unfair. People hold BYU to a higher standard of behavior than other schools simply because BYU literally asks them to. By being so publicly vocal about the unique mission of the school and, by extension, its football program, the Cougars open themselves up for increased ridicule when things go wrong and players (as emissaries of the university) don't live up to their own standards.
This isn't to say that BYU shouldn't hold themselves to those high standards or be vocal about doing so. They should. It can drive a tremendously positive message for the school and for its sponsoring church — and usually, it does. However, as with most things in life, there's a downside to that choice — a risk. And BYU saw that risk play itself out on a very public stage in Miami.
When your entire brand is predicated on doing things "the right way" and then you very clearly conduct yourselves the opposite of "the right way," you're going to invite additional scrutiny. You're going to get called on the carpet. You're going to take more of the blame than a school like Memphis. After all, the expectations are higher — and you set them there.
That, in a nutshell, is why BYU is taking more of a beating (pardon the pun) for Monday's altercation than Memphis. And the image (namely, Nacua's vicious punch) and actions (the entire concept of a postgame brawl involving "holier-than-thou" BYU, in general) that millions of people have now had beamed directly into their eyeballs have so clearly controverted BYU's core message (that they're different, that they live a higher standard, etc.) that the school's brand will undoubtedly take a hit, at least in the short term.
Now, I imagine some of you are probably asking, "Wait, why does any of this matter again? What if I don't care about BYU's brand and what other people say about us? What if I'm glad to see our players show a little nastiness for once?" That's all well and good. You are allowed to feel those things. You are allowed to have your own opinions and feelings on the situation. That's your prerogative.
But what I can say — and this is why all of this PR mumbo jumbo is important — is that there are 12 considerably influential gentlemen in Salt Lake City who almost certainly see things differently. They care very much about BYU's brand and how the school is perceived, because it has a direct bearing in some way on how the LDS Church is perceived.
After all, BYU hasn't been shy about the role its athletics programs play as a "missionary tool" for its sponsoring church — providing a fantastic opportunity to showcase the best and brightest young men and women the faith has to offer, to allow them to act as eminently admirable emissaries to the world. And that's certainly true, 99 percent of the time.
But what happens when that one percent strikes? What happens when those bright young men stop being so bright — and even get downright violent while the world watches? To extend the "missionary tool" analogy to its logical conclusion, the Miami Beach Bowl was the sporting equivalent of 100 Mormon missionaries — decked out in white shirts, ugly ties and black name tags — getting into a gang war with CNN cameras rolling nearby, then having the whole thing show up on Anderson Cooper.
Sound ridiculous? Well, if you view the BYU football program as a missionary tool for the LDS Church (as the Brethren certainly do), that's pretty much what just happened. And it's in that light that we can begin to fully appreciate the significance of Monday's event — and understand why the health of BYU's brand might be more important than one might initially think.
I'm sure there are some very unhappy campers among the Quorum of the Twelve right now. And I imagine that BYU President Kevin Worthen, athletic director Tom Holmoe or coach Bronco Mendenhall (and perhaps all three) can expect to receive a rather stern phone call from the Church Office Building sooner rather than later. Nobody will be fired, but the Brethren's displeasure will undoubtedly be made clear. The stakes for BYU football, as a missionary tool for the church, will be reiterated. Apologies and promises of increased vigilance will be made.
And ultimately, a bunch of players will be suspended for their actions. Kai Nacua may even be kicked off the team. Things could get serious. There's no telling how hard the hammer might come down. Not because Salt Lake is going to prescribe punishments personally or anything like that, but because the administrative powers that be at BYU, with their freshly slapped wrists, will be motivated to make a statement, mete out justice to the offenders and save some face for the school's temporarily tarnished brand. (Not to mention that it might just be the right thing to do after such an awful occurrence.)
Ultimately, though, BYU will be fine. Their brand will be fine. The LDS Church will be fine. This is a temporary crisis. The memories of the Miami Beach Bowl brawl — however visceral they may be — will likely fade with time. People will eventually forget about Kai Nacua and move on to the next spectacle.
But not before the brawl leaves its mark on the football program. Because after all is said done — after the Brethren have spoken and the punishments have been distributed — there is no doubt there will be a renewed understanding among players about what it means to put on that BYU jersey — and what you represent when you do.
After all, your brand is always being shaped in one way or another.