Lessons in crisis response from the World of Sports

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Posted on May 10, 2016

As part of its internship program, Navigator asks its interns to write a blog post about the intersection of communications and an area of personal interest. First up, resident sports fan Lewis Krashinksy.

The sport’s world is no stranger to scandal. From Kobe Bryant, to Tiger Woods, to the NFL’s frequent troubles, you would think every athlete would be prepared to handle a crisis. However, unlike politicians, celebrities and corporate leaders –who have issues managers, publicists and outside consultants on staff –it isn’t standard practice for the average professional athlete. It’s standard for your superstar athlete (like a Lance Armstrong) but for an average infielder or a promising draft pick in the NCAA, not so much.

On April 22, Major League Baseball shocked Toronto Blue Jays fans by announcing first basemen Chris Colabello’s 80-game suspension for using a banned performance-enhancing drug. Just six days later, ten minutes before the start of the 2016 NFL draft, a video of top-prospect Laremy Tunsil taking a bong hit surfaced online. The video of Tunsil went viral and questions of his character abounded. He was a consensus top-five projected pick before the draft, who ended up being picked thirteenth, despite the fact that his ability to play football has not changed. But, his slide from the fifth draft pick to the thirteenth cost him roughly $8 million.

If you look up the definition of crisis communications in a textbook, you’ll find it defined as the management of an individual or organization’s relations with, and approach to, the media during a time of intense attention, speculation and outrage. In the school of hard knocks, it’s defined as how you respond to a physical and virtual mob of journalists after you have done something to generate the public’s ire. The consequences can be rather painful. For example, it only took one week of intense media coverage for then Governor of New York Elliot Spitzer to resign after the New York Times reported his ties to a prostitution ring. For professional athletes, the consequences are different. With Colabello, it’s missing games, for Tunsil it’s plummeting in the draft rankings. Regardless of whether you’re a politician or an athlete, when crisis hits, you need a plan.

In general, professional athletes tend to have a bank of goodwill with the public. Colabello, in particular, had a heartwarming underdog story of working his way up after seven seasons in Independent League Baseball and an unimpressive turn with the Minnesota Twins, suddenly hitting his stride with the Blue Jays. However, Colabello only has one good partial season to bank on, so he has little insurance to withstand the consequences of this crisis.

Colabello and his advisors tried to make the best out of a challenging situation. After the story broke and media attention exploded, Colabello did not make himself available to the press immediately. He released a brief statement through the MLBPA explaining his side. This was a sound play. Media scrums can be intimidating and, if you’re not used to them, they can quickly spiral out of your control. It’s a journalist’s job to ask tough and direct questions; Colabello’s job is to hit baseballs. Had he faced the press in a scrum immediately, it would not have been a fair matchup.

Instead, several days later, he gave a lengthy, well-prepared interview with a single journalist from Sportsnet. This allowed him and his team to develop answers to the toughest questions, practice delivery, and let attention on the story abate, at least marginally. At minimum, Colabello was able to deliver a comprehensive and consistent response. He essentially denied that he knew he was taking drugs. The verdict? A hung jury. Opinion is split between those those who think Colabello is a cheater and others who think he’s just stupid. Not exactly a home run, but it could have been much worse.

Laremy Tunsil’s situation got worse after the NFL entry draft. His Instagram account was hacked with photos of an alleged text conversation between Tunsil and John Miller, Assistant Athletic Director at his alma mater, Ole Miss. The conversation involved Tunsil asking Miller to pay his family’s rent, which would violate NCAA rules.

However, unlike Colabello, Tunsil does not have to defend the ‘integrity of the game’ or face teammates and judgements of betrayal. Tunsil’s crisis has a more personal aspect, involving family, his private life, and ad hominem evaluations. But, Tunsil suffered by not having a thoughtful crisis response plan. On the night of the draft and in the immediate days after, Tunsil spoke to several reporters and answered questions without anything resembling a strategy. Unlike Colabello, Tunsil didn’t actively lie—or at least that’s the perception— and he even seems to be the victim of betrayal himself. But there remains a lingering smell of scandal. Thankfully for Tunsil, whether or not the scandal hangs around will probably hinge more on his performance with the Miami Dolphins than his response to the press.

Both Colabello and Tunsil stand in stark contrast to a professional athlete who has managed the international spotlight her entire career and is in the midst of a scandal of her own. Maria Sharapova did something rare in sports: she admitted to doping. That alone was enough to set her response apart from the now routine denials that come from athletes caught up with PEDs. At the time, it seemed like she handled the situation with a perfect response plan. Coming forth herself rather than speaking through representatives, she accepted the allegations head-on and accepted the consequences. The drug (meldonium) wasn’t banned until Jan. 1, 2016, so Sharapova’s use of the drug wasn’t an issue until this year. She claims she began taking it as a teen at the advice of her physician, for health reasons unrelated to competition, and that she only recently became aware that it is a banned substance. Her management of the situation was praised, with competitors like Serena Williams stating it took ‘a lot of courage.’

But, as is the case with politicians and celebrities, some scandals have many lives. New details have come to light related to Sharapova’s case. The entire national under-18 Russian hockey team was pulled from the world championships for using the same drug and there are rumblings of state-sponsored doping. Consequently, some feel Sharapova lied and that her drug use was calculated. Others feel that the International Tennis Federation is using her as an example. In the past, tennis authorities have been criticized for lax or selective rules on doping. Sharapova’s age and declining tennis game make her an easier target to demonstrate that the sport takes doping seriously than a young athlete at the height of their career. Sharapova is the world’s highest-paid female athlete and her suspension is a high-profile case.

So where does this leave the superstar? For starters, tennis is not her only line of business. She has her own ‘Sugarpova’ line of candy, clothing and accessories. Following the doping scandal, her Nike, TAG Heuer and Porsche sponsors dropped her, but she is a brand in her own right. This month, she attended the MET Gala, a major event for fashion and celebrities. Despite increased media scrutiny from the drug scandal, she isn’t hiding. Instead she is putting herself front-and-centre in ways that can benefit her other ventures. She is taking charge of the narrative and changing the conversation. While Colabello and Tunsil don’t have their own brands they can fall back on, the tactic still applies.

Sharapova is giving the media other things to talk about besides her scandal and using the attention to highlight different parts of her image. Colabello and Tunsil could do the same, be it charitable events, community engagement or a winning season. Either way, both can take a lesson from the tennis star: no matter the scandal, with careful planning, there’s always a way forward.

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