Bad Reputations and Pro Athletes: The Makings of a Comeback

Mike Trout car wreck
Written by Brian Matthew

Think fixing a bad reputation is tough? Pro athletes have it tougher. Here’s what they’re up against. Brian Matthew reports …

aNewDomain — You’ve got to feel for Matt Harvey. The Mets pitcher went out partying, missed a game and the next thing he knew, he was suspended from playing the next three games without pay and had to make a public apology. 

For most of us, a blunder like this isn’t something that will haunt you forever, but in the world of professional athletics you never know. 

bad reputationsThink about it. Pro athletes aren’t just the most well-paid people on the planet, they’re also among the most famous.

Like actors, rock stars and politicians, all eyes are on them. And it doesn’t take much to turn fame into infamy for these guys, a transformation that can dog them for years to come once their playing days are over.

Reputation management is hard for anyone, but it’s far tougher for sports stars. Even the all time greats of their sports are not immune to the demanding pressure of the spotlight.

The Best of the Best

If I were to ask you who the most dominant player in sports history is, you’re likely to mention one of two individuals; Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan. These two set a standard by which no players in their respective sports have even come close to, and both of them have been retired for almost 20 years.

Now Wayne Gretzky, or the Great One as he’s referred to by hockey fans, escaped stardom without so much as a scratch over his 20 year career as the top player in the NHL. Beloved by his fans, he helped multiple teams win Stanley Cups in his tenure, Gretzky held every record imaginable upon his retirement, and will likely live to see most of his records go un-approached, let alone broken.

bad reputationsBut even the best can fall from grace …

Michael Jordan on the other hand retired amidst questions galore when he cited a “loss of desire to play the game” as his main reason for leaving the sport so soon. The argument can be tirelessly made that the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls are the best basketball team ever assembled, and fans of the game will debate endlessly (usually choosing another one of Jordan’s Bulls team as the better team).

Jordan even tried his hand at playing professional baseball for the Chicago White Sox in a bizarre series of events, but following his retirement there was quite a lot of noise in the press citing gambling addictions and potential sports betting rumors.

As someone who is now popular with today’s children for arguing with tags in Hanes t-shirt commercials, it’s obvious Jordan did some serious PR work to keep his image intact.

bad reputationsCareful handling of a public image can make a player into a star, and the same smart use of media and public relations can turn a disgraced player back into a beloved figure. We see it all the time with both celebrities and athletes alike, there are a multitude of ways in which they actively work to clean up their public images and make sure they’re portrayed the way they want to be.

The Ray Lewis effect

Jordan’s example was a bit of here-say and rumors which were swept under the rug, but take a more modern scenario. There’s no better example of this than Ray Lewis, the football player who was once implicated in a double murder.

Though Lewis was not accused of committing the murder, it did eventually become clear that he had destroyed evidence to protect friends involved in the incident. For a long time (and to this day, for some fans), Lewis was associated with the incident – one of the uglier ones in the history of off-the-field professional sports scandals.

But Lewis didn’t hide from the limelight. He became very vocal about his Christian faith and went on to have a long career. By the time he retired, he was a leader on his team and, to many fans, a beloved personality.

In his prime, there’s no fantasy football fan out there who would’ve had a problem drafting that Ravens defense with him quarterbacking their relentless attack. Even after retiring, Lewis ended up as a commentator, interviewing modern stars and reporting on NFL games.

Reputation Renovation, Pro Athlete Style

Lewis was marked by scandal early in his career but ascended to off-the-field stardom later on, a happy reversal of the sad story that too many other athletes have lived out.

Much of this has to do with the nature of his scandal (Lewis himself was not charged with murder) and his increased focus on his faith and personal values, but another portion of it has to do with how he presented those things. Lewis used his faith and character in a public relations strategy that lasted his entire career, and it paid massive dividends for him.

Not all athletes need to rehabilitate their images, and some may find their images are beyond saving. But for others, there is an important lesson in Lewis’ journey. While there’s no substitute for personal growth, it’s important for athletes to show the public how they’ve changed. In a world where infractions as small as a car accident can catch national attention, a good public image is almost as important as a good self-image.

Stay on the Right Side of Conflict

bad reputationIt’s no surprise that athletes catch more attention for little mistakes than the rest of us do, but sometimes they do the right thing just like normal people do. Consider baseball superstar Mike Trout.

As one of the best players in all of baseball, the star of his team, and a staple of countless fantasy baseball teams, he got involved in a car accident after a game in which he was likely at fault. Although the crash was likely a result of him not paying attention to stopped traffic ahead of him, he wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol or anything like that at the time of the crash. Accidents happen even to professional athletes and celebrities, and in this case Trout was the first one to rush to the other driver’s car as she had sustained some major injuries in the crash.

We all make mistakes, and Lewis undoubtedly understood all these points we’ve made here. Other athletes will no doubt follow in his footsteps, making two parallel journeys: a private one to end their troublesome ways, and a public one to signal that change to their fans and peers. That said, let’s hope for more of the good-guy Mike Trouts than make-it-better-later Lewises in the future.

For aNewDomain, I’m Brian McGuire.

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