When heroes falter, it's forgive or forget

Disgrace: Some athletes rebound while others sink into obscurity, but being straightforward helps.

August 07, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Ray Lewis was accused of murder. Latrell Sprewell choked his coach. Muhammad Ali refused to go to war and was labeled a traitor.

All rebounded to attain greater stature than before.

Ben Johnson was stripped of a gold medal days after he set a sprint record. Tonya Harding conspired to have a rival figure skater clubbed in the knee, and never seriously contended again. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and went to prison for three years.

None ever quite emerged from the darkness.

Some of history's greatest athletes have fallen from grace, and there's little telling whether they will rise again. This is the uncertain reality faced by Rafael Palmeiro as he prepares to return from suspension for a positive steroid test, which tarnished a legacy he had just cemented by getting his 3,000th hit.

The athletes who endure best, said marketers and agents, are those who address their troubles head-on and return to the field.

"Tell it early, tell it all and tell it yourself," said Lanny Davis, who advised the Clinton White House on media crises. "The rules are the same whether you're a president, a corporate CEO or a baseball player."

Davis said apologizing works on the most basic human level and shouldn't be much different for a superstar than for a little boy who has broken his grandpa's favorite porcelain bird.

"It seems counterintuitive, but people want to forgive," he said. "If [Palmeiro] tells them what he's done and he does it himself, he will be forgiven."

"So far," Davis added, "he's broken every rule."

Legal issues (such as possible perjury before Congress) can get in the way of a clean apology, said longtime Baltimore agent Ron Shapiro.

"But if you play games or have your representatives continue to deflect the issue, the public will continue viewing you in a negative light," he said.

Others said Palmeiro's fall might be particularly hard, because, though he has never been a huge celebrity, he has always been known as a clean-living, hard-working, modest man. Few seemed to doubt him in March, when he wagged his finger in the air and denied steroid allegations before a congressional panel.

"If you've built an identity in the sport on being a goody guy, you just have farther to fall," said Peter Carlisle, an Oregon-based agent who has represented numerous Olympians, including Michael Phelps.

Carlisle helped advise Phelps after the 19-year-old swimmer was charged with drunken driving in November.

But Carlisle said steroids might be a different beast in crisis management. "It was a large, abstract issue for so long, that it's just not a cut-and-dried problem," he said. "It's a complex problem that goes beyond the individual."

Politics have muddled the matter, agreed Shapiro, who has represented Orioles stars from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken.

"What makes it different is that it's not only a legal issue, but it's been made a political issue," said Shapiro, who took care to say he's not passing judgment on Palmeiro. "That makes the athlete much more vulnerable."

People in the political game, he said, "will keep stirring the pot and stirring the pot."

Image crises of all sorts have been part of sports for a century.

Babe Ruth was pilloried when an ulcer (attributed to hard living) and a standoff with manager Miller Huggins caused him to miss much of the 1925 baseball season. Paul Hornung, the "Golden Boy" halfback from Notre Dame, was suspended for the 1963 NFL season after admitting he had gambled on football. Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins was as lauded a high school basketball player as New York ever produced, but he couldn't swoop through the NBA until 1970 - past his prime - because of point-shaving allegations.

Athletes have endured such traumas in an equal variety of ways.

Ali had integrity on his side, and as national sentiment turned against the Vietnam War, he became a hero for his stance against the draft.

Phelps modeled the pre-emptive approach to image rehab. Sports marketers said his DUI arrest would tarnish the swimmer's wholesome image as a relentless worker who felt at ease in his local pancake joint.

But Phelps didn't let such doubts linger.

He called news outlets shortly after the arrest, apologizing, taking responsibility for his mistake and saying he would talk to school groups about the dangers of drunken driving.

"In my view, if you ever can, you have to have the athlete face the public," Carlisle said. "The sooner you come to terms with the fact you made a mistake and you weren't above making it, the better for the athlete."

Carlisle even encouraged reporters to ask the young star about his troubles. "It's part of his life," he said. "You can't tiptoe around it."

Forty-two years after his gambling suspension, Hornung said that's exactly the advice he would give to Palmeiro and others.

"The most forgiving part of the American public is the sports fans," said the former Green Bay star.

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