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Q&A: An Unusual Season

Cathy Lanier, senior vice president of security for the National Football League, discusses how the coronavirus pandemic redefined the phrase “game changer” and how she is already looking at what lies ahead.

0720-Cathy-Lanier.jpgPrior to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, security departments operating in sports entertainment contended with a wide range of considerations and potential threats to players, staff, management, fans, and communities. Security must also consider when it is time to postpone or cancel an event, depending on the threat level posed.

During the early spring of 2020, as new cases of COVID-19 rapidly spread, many sporting events around the world were altered, indefinitely postponed, or outright cancelled. Now Cathy Lanier, senior vice president of security for the National Football League (NFL), considers what the near future of sporting events may look like and security’s role in that environment.

In addition to disruptions, the crisis also uncovered opportunities, Lanier says, citing the decision and execution of an online NFL Draft Day, with players, managers, coaches, and announcers participating from their homes. Lanier notes that this event offered a fresh form of entertainment, its novelty and intimacy attracting families and potentially other viewers who would usually tune out such an event.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What other escalating actions or options are available to an organization before a postponement or cancellation?

CL. Hurricanes, natural disasters, and other things can push an event, but COVID-19 is unique in that it is international. There are components for a lot of the entertainment and venue world, both international and domestic. There are state and local laws and ordinances that we have to consider, and it’s different state by state. Most of our events involve bringing competition from one state to the next. If the rules are different in each state, then that’s a problem for us, because there’s a competitive equity issue. They’re opening up Georgia, for example, but not New England—how do you have a fair competition between those two clubs if one can get in and do a team practice and the other can’t? The pandemic has made this a much more complex decision-making process.

The list of things we have to consider here is so much greater, especially for sports leagues, where you have competition involved with the pandemic. And there are so many unknowns about this that create additional complexities that you have to think through.

But what is known is that it’s far more than a two-month scenario. This is a virus that’s not going to have a vaccine that is widely distributed arguably for a total of 18 months at the minimum. We’re hearing from experts that it’s likely to come back between November and March and strike again with another spike. This is a scenario that’s going to be with us for the next year. We’re going to have to have multiple layers of plans that we can scale up and down depending on many factors.

As a security leader, are you responsible for maintaining all those potential scenarios or do you also rely on your team?

CL. Leadership is the lack of working by yourself. Trying to think through any complex scenario on your own is the worst way to do it. Two or three days after we went to mandatory work from home in most states, I formed multiple internal working groups. Within two weeks we expanded those groups to our internal business partners—our football operations or events people, our sponsorships, our fan satisfaction people—because really a lot of what we’re going to be doing is understanding what the fans are feeling and looking for and what their comfort level is in the future. Within a few more weeks, we started adding our external partners—our stadium operations and stadium guest services people.

Leading through this kind of complex environment and engaging as many and as broad a group of stakeholders as you possibly can, that’s the hard part. Have you thought of everybody that’s impacted? Have you missed any critical group or person that has potential answers or potential things that are going to be critical to your operations?

What are other options or factors are available to your organization that can help mitigate situations around an event?

CL. One of the things I did was I put together some guiding principles for my groups. Everything we do for planning around the pandemic has to follow the guidance provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization. You have to be in line with the leading experts on what we know about the virus, so that’s our basic guiding principle.

Secondly, we try to mirror our recommendations and proposals on what we’re going to do with what national policy guidance has been. The White House and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have both put out guidance policies, for example, answering the question as to who is an essential worker. But we also have to make sure that whatever we decide is in compliance with corresponding state or local executive orders. With the draft, we had to look at the state and local executive orders for all 32 clubs for every place where we had a general manager, a head coach, a prospect, and an agent. That was a lot.

The last of the three, and perhaps the most important of the guiding principles, is prioritizing the health and safety of our employees, our players, our club staff, and the fans. If we’re not prioritizing the health and safety of all those constituents, then our plans aren’t effective. We have to make them the priority. If it’s not safe, then we need other alternatives.

The draft was that scenario. We couldn’t come up with a plan to do it safely the way it’s always been done and in compliance with those other guiding principles, so we had to come up with a way to do it that met all of these parameters.

All those things are predicated on the essential factors: Are cases increasing or declining? If we don’t have adequate personal protective equipment or screening and testing equipment to do our job, then we can’t push people into the workplace. And what’s the treatment capacity? Are hospitals in the area overwhelmed? If they’re building temporary hospitals, we probably shouldn’t be thinking about opening anything up. All those things are guiding our decisions here. To make the decision normally as a leader, you think about four or five things. This is a long list of considerations, so it’s very, very complex, and I think that’s just the nature of a pandemic.

These three guiding principles that you’re using to address dealing with COVID-19, are they based on ones that you might use normally in planning security around events?

CL. I think the normal ones I would use would be prioritizing the health and safety of our employees, our players, our coaches, our club staff, our fans—that’s something I use every day. I’m making sure that everyone who comes to our events is safe—that’s a normal planning assumption.

Another normal planning assumption is that people can enter our workspace and feel comfortable in that workspace, not like they’re under some sort of police state, like security is overwhelming.

I also always think about being flexible. We’ve got to be able to make decisions on the fly, and in order to do that you have to have multiple options in your head. You have to have business continuity, and you have to have a plan. Those are the normal assumptions.

Developing multiple options allows you to be flexible and move between these options quickly—so we may start loosening up all our guidance and returning people to work, to play, and moving forward, and the second wave could hit in November. Then you’d better be able to scale back very quickly.

With all those decisions in mind, why would you choose to keep supporting an event?

CL. I think the draft is another good example. There was trepidation from the public, from the press, from the league perspective about going forward with the draft given the crisis that was going on around the pandemic. But if we could do it safely by playing within all the rules and not putting anybody’s safety in jeopardy, wouldn’t it be a great thing to give something like the draft, raise their spirits, and engage them with a form of entertainment?

A healthy society needs engagement, it needs entertainment, it needs something to celebrate as leisure.

For us in the entertainment and sporting industry, we’ve got to decide where the line between healthful and harmful is. People need this, but they don’t need it to a point where we’re going to put people in jeopardy to do it. So if we stick within those guiding principles and we can say yes to all of those things in the guiding principles, then we say yes, we’re moving forward with an event. Then we have an obligation to go forward, and we should go forward to make sure that the country and people get what they need from entertainment and engagement.

So, at what point would an event become untenable?

CL. If you’d asked me six months ago if it’s easy to make decisions whether to go forward with a game or an event based on threats, I’d say no, it’s terribly hard. But now, I think the decisions on whether to go forward with an event are easy compared with what we’re facing today.

If there’s a hurricane coming up the southeast coast and it’s due to make landfall on Saturday afternoon and then slowly move up the coast Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—it could impact a significant football market. Not only all the stadiums along the southeast coast but also all those teams that have games other places. If a team has to get on a plane and fly out to Colorado to play a game, that game’s in jeopardy as well. So, we have contingency plans that we look at. How do we take that impacted market and do we have alternate games we can get them to play? Can they take a bus and travel to the market where they’re going to play the game? Do we have another stadium they can play in? Is it open? Is there something else already scheduled for that day? So, what seemed like a complex decision to me six months ago, now is a walk in the park. Those are easy decisions now.

And then there are other threats that can impact whether we go forward with a game. We get bomb threats, we get call-in threats, and we get people posing threats to players and officials. We have to make decisions sometimes about whether we feel safe going forward. We have a matrix that we use to improve those decisions. This is a game changer. It’s a very different decision process.

Are there any other types of incidents besides threats that might alter an event?

CL. We also have to think about the psyche of the fans and the community. So, it may not be something that’s isolated to the team, the game, the stadium, but it may be something that’s just tragic that just happened in that particular community. Maybe a tornado came through a week earlier and 50 people were severely injured or killed, and the law enforcement resources are really stressed. Do we want to go forward with the event in a community that’s suffering some sort of trauma? Do we want to dump an event in that community that’s going to take away their resources or have an impact on the community? Those are all critical factors in deciding whether an event goes forward.

With that in mind, all the factors that go into these decisions, how do you explain the call to not have an event as originally intended to stakeholders?

CL. As we work through these decisions, one of the key factors we’re always thinking of is how does this feel to people when we say that we’re not going forward. As we’re going through that matrix, it starts to become more and more clear that this is the right thing to do.

The communications come easy. If you think through all of those things—who’s impacted, why they’re impacted, how they’re impacted—your decisions will be based on the philosophy of doing the right thing for the right reasons. You think through these things properly, you go through that decision-making process, then the public message is very simple. The public realizes that you’re making a decision that’s the right decision to make.

Will there always be 100 percent of people that support your decision? Absolutely not. But I think in general, if you make decisions based on the right information, the messaging is easy.

Does security’s role change after postponing or cancelling an event?

CL. Oh, sure. There’s a security element to every decision that’s made, in my opinion. That’s my job—to think through what the security impact is of every decision, no matter how benign it might look.

If we think about what security looks like two years from now, based on what’s happening right now, that’s what I’m thinking about right now. What are our fans’ expectations when they come to the stadium two years from now when there’s no pandemic? What are employees’ expectations about what we want them to do to perform security and guest services in the future?

Security is more than just physical security and cybersecurity. It’s really about protecting the partnerships, the brand, the investments—we look at all of those things.

In a post-coronavirus world, do you see the public anticipating sporting or entertainment events under a new normal?

CL. Sure! I laugh now about how many times I threw around that phrase, “Oh, this is a game changer,” because nothing in my lifetime has been a game changer like this.

Why would you now invest in that retail or that rental space to put your employees all in one place where their productivity is probably not as good as when they were at home? And does that impact the job market? People don’t have to relocate, so you’re saving a ton of money on relocation fees, housing fees, and moving expenses.

All of those things that people are thinking and discussing right now about the work from home—“Is this going to change the way people do things in the future?”—the same is true for security.

We constantly survey our fans to see what their feelings are about screening, feeling safe, some level of protection. There are all kinds of new technologies now that are being developed to support large events. So, I think the whole world looks different for us two years from now. Everything looks different.

Sara Mosqueda is assistant editor at Security Management. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ximenawrites.