There was a time, not so long ago, when members of the athletic community were viewed as pillars of honesty and integrity. The public gave them trust ratings much higher than those of elected representatives (not surprising) and even physicians. Those days are gone.
The explosion in the number of print, Internet, radio, and television reporters using investigative reporting techniques regarding athletes and coaches has produced an intense focus on their behavioral failings. Incident after incident begin with accusations being made and athletic figures vehemently denying the behavior. Later, the athletic figure makes an admission that he was not telling the truth. Why do they do this and how does the public discern the truth?
The use of performing enhancing drugs has been a particular challenge to athletic truthfulness. Lance Armstrong was an authentic American hero. He recovered from testicular cancer and dominated cycling competitions in an unprecedented way. He raised millions of dollars and public awareness to help stimulate research in the fight against cancer through his foundation Livestrong. For many years he vehemently denied using artificial or illegal techniques to stimulate high performance. He repeated the denial over and over again. The public wanted to believe him. He bullied cyclists who were at odds with the denial. And then came his Oprah interview and he admitted that he lied.
Marion Jones and Ben Johnson, Olympic sprinters, made similar denials. They were the epitome of talented amateur athletes competing for the pride of America. They too ultimately admitted that they had lied. Legions of baseball superstars from Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds told the American public that they performed without the aid of steroids. The Mitchell Report showed that player after player lied. A new scandal has erupted over the use of a Miami clinic that has been tied to PEDs which listed numerous baseball players including 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun.
Superstar linebacker Ray Lewis of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens denied that he or his friends were involved in two Atlanta murders at a previous Super Bowl. He was especially vehement in protecting his friends. Then he accepted a plea deal involving his involvement in a coverup and turned state's witness and testified against his friends. The list goes on and on.
I have counselled athletes in crisis for years. The key to handling an embarrassing situation is transparency. First, make sure they are aware of every relevant fact surrounding their misconduct so they don't end up being confronted by a fact they are not aware of. Second, admit to bad conduct. Next, state the standard of correct conduct and an awareness of how they failed. Then make an apology to any impacted constituencies. And finally, describe how they are taking steps to prevent a recurrence. Then, and only then can the healing begin. The American public can accept the lack of perfection in its heroes. Sterling effort and performance in their craft, combined with exemplary behavior can soften the hearts of their fans over time. But the public has little use for liars.
Most of the statements that athletes make in these circumstances come out of panic and fear of the consequences of their misconduct. Athletes are caught off guard with damaging facts and act defensively. Some athletes have thought through the consequences and deliberately try and obscure the truth. One thing that can damage the relationship of an athlete and the public permanently is the perception of brazen and unrepentant lying.
Athletes still function as role models, whether they choose the role willingly or not. The power of television and other media brings their images into front rooms in larger than life presentations. They are not role modeling great performance, since only an infintesimal percentage of the public can hope to be professional athletes. They are modeling qualities like self-discipline, courage under pressure and teamwork. Lying damages the tender bond between athletes and their fans.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.