Players, teams finding it easier to weather crises, experts say

Stars and clubs do well to tackle issues publicly, avoid seeming arrogant

Jamal Lewis Indictment

February 27, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Drug indictment charges against Jamal Lewis have thrust the star running back and the Baltimore Ravens into crisis-control mode. But experts say such incidents have, in twisted irony, become less damaging as they have become more commonplace.

"I think that we're in an age where these types of events are no longer as traumatic to a sports organization as it would have been," said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management consultant in Washington. "It's become normalized in the culture. These types of arrests have not been shown to disrupt business."

Experts say the stars and their organizations fare best if they address the situation publicly and don't appear arrogant. The Ravens have followed that formula by quickly declaring support for their player and the legal process without leaning too hard toward guilt or innocence.

There is no shortage of recent examples of sports personalities and teams having to craft an appropriate public response after trouble. Some have succeeded. Some haven't.

Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant appeared with his wife in an emotional news conference last summer after being charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel.

While the allegation has cost him lucrative corporate endorsements, his team still draws large crowds, and Bryant played in the National Basketball Association's All-Star Game this month.

Yet University of Colorado football coach Gary Barnett all but forced his school's president to suspend him after he showed no public sympathy about allegations that his players had raped several women, among them a former female team member.

Experts also decried the Chicago Cubs' handling of allegations last summer that slugger Sammy Sosa illegally corked his bat. By emphasizing that it was a practice bat and dismissing fan concerns, the team fueled the furor, said Patrick Riccards, vice president of Widmeyer Communications in Washington.

Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks said of a series of incidents that have buffeted his team: "They happen, so we just have to deal with them. If we create them, then we have to listen to them, so we have to stop creating things that come about for our team and just try to move on.

"If we can not create some of the things that happen and just go out and play basketball, we should be OK. ... But we create things for [the media] to ask about, then that's on us."

Because the drug charges against Lewis are based on an incident that occurred in 2000, before his six-year, $35.3 million contract with the Ravens, the team's association with the incident is lessened, experts said.

Football fans are also typically more loyal to teams than to individual players, in contrast with fans of baseball or basketball, observers said.

"It's not a team issue unless they make it a team issue," said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Los Angeles. "There are no allegations that he was using drugs while playing, which would make it a team issue. They have to tread that fine line between pleading empathy for one of their team while not wanting their name to be damaged by association."

Remaining silent - which the Ravens did not do - would have been a mistake, crisis managers said.

"We believe in due process, and Jamal will have his day in court," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement Wednesday night. "From what we know of the charges, these seem out of character for the Jamal we know."

"The way the public views large corporations and large organizations, if you clam up, you look arrogant or that you're deliberately hiding the facts," said Larry Kamer, director of issues and crisis management for Manning Selvage & Lee, a public relations firm in New York.

Lewis could lose endorsement deals, but most of his commercial tie-ins have been local. Although the chance appears remote, the player could be traded if the Ravens decide the negative publicity is too damaging, some experts speculated.

Fans want to hear from the player, said Riccards, an expert in corporate crisis management.

"He needs to come out with a statement for the record and make it very clear where he stands, that he continues to speak for his innocence and appreciates the support of the Baltimore Ravens and his fans," Riccards said.

Sun staff writers Jamison Hensley and Milton Kent contributed to this article.

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