Scandals in Pro Sports: The Road to Retirement

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Jack DeschauerBy Jack Deschauer, Senior Vice President, LEVICK

Two professional athletes are under fire for behavior outside the game. The biggest difference? The degree to which the strength of their individual brands could salvage their legacy.

First, there is Peyton Manning: two-time Super Bowl winner, pro-bowl MVP, five-time NFL MVP, and All-American, retiring after 18 seasons in the NFL. Manning is facing scrutiny over an alleged sexual assault that occurred while he was in college. Next, we have world no. 7 tennis phenom Maria Sharapova: Olympic silver medalist, winner of five grand slams and 14 Tier 1 tournaments, and one of the “100 Great of All Time” per the Tennis Channel. Sharapova could potentially retire at the age of 28 after having recently admitted to failing a drug test.

One of these athletes will be retiring as a seasoned beloved veteran, while the other would be retiring due to controversy. The circumstances and public response suggest that many qualities go into shaping the impact of a scandal, such as the athlete’s personal brand and the timing of the incident.

The public response to the two athletes’ scenarios has also been remarkably dissimilar. Manning has been met with support from fans. At his press conference announcing his retirement, a reporter who brought up the allegations against Manning was verbally attacked by fans. Manning did not respond, other than to say he was not interested in re-litigating something that happened when he was 19. On the other hand, Sharapova, despite having acknowledged fault and asking for a second chance, is being criticized by other leading tennis professionals, the press, and the public.

A component that will influence the effects of these scandals on Manning and Sharapova’s careers is how beloved the athletes are. Peyton Manning is one of the most loved American athletes; a good guy; face of DirecTV and Papa John’s Pizza. Manning is a charitable member of what has become known as America’s first football family. Sharapova, on the other hand, is known to be icy, and has garnered a reputation for occasional bad sportsmanship. Fans are less willing to condemn Manning because his personal brand is built on the idea that he is a decent, family man.

Although Sharapova is not negatively viewed, tennis’ lower standing compared to football, her Russian heritage, and lesser successes, make this a more difficult brand battle for her. Sharapova is not America’s tennis player; she is competing in that space with the wildly successful Williams sisters in a sport that already receives lower amounts of attention.

Timing is also significant; Manning faced scandals during his last year of play, when there was already speculation of retirement, fresh off a Super Bowl victory. Sharapova was preparing for the 2016 Australian Open when her drug use came to light. She had to confront the problem head-on because it affects her ability to continue playing. If Sharapova retires, it will be the result of her inability to recover from this drug scandal, not because her time had come and she had achieved her professional goals.

When athletes retire amidst scandal, it is often the character of the player throughout their career— more than the actions being questioned by the public— that determines how their story ends.

 About the Author: Jack Deschauer is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK. His expertise extends to political affairs, program management, crisis management, grassroots initiatives, corporate communications, media relations, and special event advance and management. Mr. Deschauer has also assisted a number of celebrity athletes through crises, including the NFL’s “Spygate,” the Jayson Williams trial, and the suspension of Tim Montgomery by the World Anti-Doping Agency. 

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