Over the weekend, the Washington Commanders revealed a new “statue” memorializing Sean Taylor, a former safety who played for the organization from 2004-07, earning two Pro Bowl nods before his death at 24 years old. Taylor was a phenomenal young talent, family-oriented, and a hell of a workhorse on the field.
Prior to the “statue” unveiling, the Commanders had tried, in years past, to honor Taylor’s memory. In 2021, the Commanders retired his No. 21 jersey prior to a matchup with the Chiefs. Apart from the ceremony, Washington also printed a large “21″ on the side of the field, sectioned off by plastic white chains. The ceremony was overshadowed by controversy though when Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ annoying brother, Jackson Mahomes, took a video of himself dancing atop the “21″ meant to honor Taylor’s legacy, and promptly posted said video to social media.
This controversy led several people within the Commanders’ front office to believe Taylor needed another, more proper memorialization, one that wasn’t burdened with unforeseen controversy. Enter the “statue.” I’ve been putting quotation marks around that word because the end result wasn’t as much a statue as it was a wiry mannequin with several aspects of Taylor’s person being supposedly misrepresented.
This was the general consensus, one of disgust, contempt, and flat-out disappointment. Amid all the poorly-handled controversies the Commanders had endured over the last three or so years — the cheerleader email scandal, team owner Dan Snyder threatening to release “dirt” on other NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, former first-round selection Dwayne Haskins’ tragic death — the franchise was handed a public relations layup with Sean Taylor’s memorial. How hard could it be to mess up honoring a fallen teammate? Build a statue. Put it front and center within the team’s stadium or just outside it, and voila, the public would cheer endlessly. Well, apparently, it’s pretty easy.
Despite the public’s dissatisfaction with the Taylor statue, members of Taylor’s inner circle seemed more than pleased with this memorial. Taylor’s half-brother, Jamal Johnson, stated “It’s an honor, like I said, once again it’s an honor to get that kind of love and respect from an organization.” Taylor’s daughter, Jackie Taylor, expressed similar content, saying, “It was beautiful, honestly. They put everything that he wore — soccer cleats, little things that were special to him and that he did as a player. That was really special.”
An aspect of the statue that most of the public seemed to despise, Taylor’s family loved most of all. Even as I write this now, most casual fans who’ve seen the statue are upset about the soccer cleats. That is a failure on the end of the Washington Commanders. They failed to properly communicate to fans what they were doing with each part of the memorial. While the same defense can’t be made for the black gloves that can be made for the soccer cleats, I’d hesitate to assume that decision was made hastily and without thought, as many people assumed with the soccer cleats.
Still, many questions remain. The Commanders would’ve been praised if they’d just built a normal bronze or copper or stone statue, just as the Arizona Cardinals did for Pat Tillman when he was killed, or the Philadelphia Eagles did to commemorate the “Philly Special” play that helped them win their first Super Bowl, so why didn’t they do that? What steps could the Commanders have taken to limit backlash from the statue? Did the Commanders’ horrible public image play a role in the massive public backlash the organization received after unveiling the statue?
I spoke with Dustin York, associate professor of Communication at Maryville University, on the matter. York has an extensive history in public relations, having worked with notable brands such as Nike, PepsiCo., and Scottrade Financial Services, as well as former President Barack Obama’s 2008 political campaign. York’s initial reaction to the statue was the same as most of us — filled with disappointment. However, as more information regarding the memorial’s design choices came to light including his family’s reaction, York’s disappointment shifted from pinning the blame on the entire Commanders’ organization to pinning the blame on the organization’s PR team.
York expressed his discontent with the Commanders’ lack of transparency as well as internal communication before the statue’s unveiling. “Whether there’s hierarchy issues or strategy issues, the internal communication with this organization has not lived up to the benchmark other teams have set,” said York. “This event clearly lacked oversight. It probably didn’t even undergo red teaming.”
Red teaming is “the practice of rigorously challenging plans, policies, systems, and assumptions by adopting an adversarial approach.” Essentially, an idea is brought forth and a group of people will tear it apart limb from limb looking for any angle that the public could misconstrue as poor taste. This group should, in a perfect world, find any flaw or lack of transparency that would cause an outcry from fans for being insensitive, historically inaccurate, or otherwise distasteful. York has experience working in this aspect of PR, and was discouraged by the Commanders’ obvious oversteps regarding these basic marketing rules.
“I don’t know if they’re not paying for it, or if they’re paying for the wrong people,” cried York. “But these golden rules of laying out these plans and processes aren’t being followed.” York expressed even more dismay regarding the Commanders’ lack of transparency regarding the decision to put Taylor’s statue in soccer cleats. “Even [Taylor’s] daughter said that the soccer shoes represented his hobbies. That was the intention behind that decision. It was supposed to represent his hobbies. [The Commanders] didn’t even communicate that well. So now rumors are going around that they just messed up. ‘Why would you even pick soccer?’ So, even with the things they did ‘right’, the team isn’t communicating those decisions and then they are seen in a bad light.”
Obviously, rolling this mannequin out as a memorial was a risky decision, given the easy home run that a bronze or stone statue would’ve been. Why not give Taylor that send-off that fans would have considered worthy of Taylor’s legacy? “I don’t have that exact answer,” admitted York. “Timing is probably the most likely culprit. I mean, the Commanders have faced a lot of other crises recently, so perhaps this memorial was given the back-burner. I’m sure this was planned out a year ago, but because of other stories and issues surrounding the team, perhaps something like this that was supposed to be a fan relations softball, was put off to give resources and attention to other, more immediate, urgent matters.”
Dan Snyder and the Commanders’ poor public image probably also played a role in how poorly the Taylor mannequin was received. “It’s always easy to beat up on the troubled child. Anytime any organization has had a series of crises, any other small misstep is going to shine a huge spotlight on them.” York continued, “If this happened to the Dallas Cowboys, let’s say, would it have gotten as much bad press? I wouldn’t think so. Think of it like this. If there’s an NFL player that’s known for being dirty, do you think the refs would keep a closer eye on him, and call penalties on that player quicker? Absolutely, because there’s a history. The same basic concept is happening here.”
Despite York believing the Commanders’ Taylor memorial was better than most people will give it credit for, he doesn’t believe the team is done honoring No. 21. “What the Commanders are really searching for is a PR win, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something else planned down the line, because this obviously was not a win.” If that is the case, hopefully, the Commanders will review their decisions a little more thoroughly before rolling them out.