An NFL flack’s non-answers

On the Media runs a talk-around on concussions, leading the author to extrapolate the flack's rhetorical style to other scenarios

If you plan on going into public relations and want a primer on how to artfully not answer a reporter’s question, look no further than the most recent episode of NPR’s frequently excellent On The Media, which covered various facets of the sports world.

A segment on the NFL’s concussion controversy included an interview recorded last year in which OTM co-anchor (and Philadelphia Eagles fan) Bob Garfield spoke with NFL chief marketing officer Mark Waller. It’s a pretty soft, nonconfrontational interview—for the most part, Garfield asks tough-ish questions but doesn’t follow up when Waller offers up the expected pablum in response. But it’s the interview’s conclusion that really stands out:

OTM: Considering the trajectory—what we’re learning about head injuries, and the rules changes—is radical change in the NFL’s future?

Waller: I think radical change is in everybody’s future. It would almost be an anachronism to be anchored in the past while the world changes around you.

OTM: Well, just protect [Eagles quarterback Michael] Vick, that’s all I care about. Because he has no offensive line.

Waller: [laughs] He needs to protect himself!

OTM: Mark, thank you so much.

Waller: Thank you very much indeed, Bob.

OTM: Mark Waller is the chief marketing officer for the National Football League.

And the segment ends. Given that Garfield’s question cuts to the very core of the issues swirling in the heads of NFL fans who think of themselves as socially conscious (this fan included), it’s a pretty remarkable non-answer from Waller, not just for its lack of content, but also for the philosophical, almost literary way in which Waller manages to impart zero information.

One might expect an NPR program to go a little bit tougher on a press flack from the NFL, a corporate behemoth so powerful that it was reportedly able to bully ESPN into backing away from co-producing a pair of concussion documentary films with Frontline. We have enough media outlets that credulously lap out what the NFL dishes up — toughen up, Bob! Ask a followup!

It was frustrating to listen to. But then I wondered if maybe the problem isn’t NPR. Maybe Waller is just a particularly gifted press flack, able to blind his inquisitors with pensive philosophical meanderings.

Indeed, when I looked back at his early career, I found him popping up in the midst of PR crisis after PR crisis, offering up almost Zen-like non-answers to important journalistic queries (note: I didn’t and he hasn’t—you can read his real-life bio here).

For instance, there was his stint as press secretary for Bill Clinton:

Reporter: What can you tell us about the allegations made about the President’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

Waller: I think relationships are an inevitable part of the human experience. Every person with whom we stand in line at the market, every child we smile at on the street. They all form the rich tapestry of human interconnectedness.

Or his brief stint at the Exxon Shipping Company in the late 1980s:

Reporter: We haven’t yet gotten any hard numbers on the size of the spill. Is there anything you can tell us on that front?

Waller: Numbers float all around us, don’t they? Just looking around this room, I could count, say, the number of ties. The number of people. The number of microphones. Numbers are such a universal concept, when you get down to it, that I think quantifying things is something that just about everybody does at one point or another.

And prior to his time with Exxon, of course, Waller worked for disgraced former CongressmanSenator Gary Hart:

Reporter: So Mark, you’re telling me, on the record, that a woman wasn’t observed leaving the Senator’s townhouse the other night?

Waller: What I’m saying, Ted, is that the concept of leaving something is so fuzzy. [Takes a step to the left.] Look, I’m [air quotes] ‘leaving’ the Senator’s townhouse, in the sense that I’m stepping away from it. We’re all leaving something: As we speak, we’re leaving behind childhood. We’re leaving behind aging loved ones, forgotten-friends, memories of first kisses.

Whatever the NFL is paying this guy, it isn’t nearly enough.

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Jesse Singal is a 2013-14 Bosch Fellow in Berlin. He can be reached at Tags: , , ,