Maria Sharapova, tennis player extraordinaire, tried mightily to wriggle out of a nearly impossible bind this week. After testing positive for meldonium, an illegal substance, during the Australian Open, she followed the classic crisis management textbook in claiming responsibility, trying to provide an explanation, then offering an apology to the sport and to her fans. Sharapova’s lawyer said she has been taking the drug since 2006 for some immune deficiencies, abnormal EKG results and diabetes indicators.
Some players, such as fellow competitor Serena Williams came to her defense, while others, including Jennifer Capriati, were far less forgiving and highly critical of the five-time Grand Slam singles champion. In the end, her sponsors, except for one, suspended their relationships on the basis of contractual breach and her status as a player in upcoming matches is very much in doubt.
Why did the traditional crisis playbook not work well in this case?
- Plausibility — The rules on the drug in question changed as of the first of the year. One of the top players in the world said that she and her team failed to pay attention to the missives from the International Tennis Federation and the Women’s Tennis Association. It is hard to understand, much less believe, the claim that a top athlete, especially one with a history of medical problems, would not have the best advice from doctors and trainers supervising her daily diet and regimen. To say that an email was overlooked, hence the drug stayed on as part of her life, strains credulity.
- Longevity of Use — When the drug company in Russia said that the usual patient regimen is a four-week script, it was completely at odds with the tennis star’s contention that she has been using the drug since 2006 on a regular basis.
- Mismatch of Symptoms — Sharapova and her team said that she has used meldonium for immune deficiencies, unusual EKG results and symptoms of diabetes. That was not one of the primary uses of the drug, which was conceived initially for those who have to perform at high altitudes.
- Sponsor Jitters — With the specter of Lance Armstrong hanging over their heads, the sponsors opted to get out of harm’s way and let the story play out without them being a continuing part of it. In contrast to Nike’s multi-year support of the former biking champion, there was an immediate withdrawal of support for Sharapova, from Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer. By contrast, Head, her racket manufacturer, announced yesterday that it was looking to extend its contract with Sharapova. In a statement, the company said it was proud of its relationship with her and called her a “role model and woman of integrity.”
- Lack of Medical Expert — You need a technical expert to provide support for claims. By going solo instead of apologizing and having an expert explain, Sharapova took on too much of a communications burden.There are long term effects from the Sharapova story, according to Jeremy Zimmer, CEO of United Talent Agency, whom I visited yesterday morning in Los Angeles. “It adds to the perception of risk of any celebrity being connected to a brand. They are human beings with frailties made more visible by the swirl of social media.” He noted that there are ways to hedge risk with singular investment in celebrity/ athlete, such as supplementing these initiatives with video influencers on YouTube and other channels, appealing to youthful and engaged enthusiasts with large audiences.
Given the sins of all the athletes that have come before her including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Armstrong, the burden of proof is much higher for Sharapova. In this case, the celebrity/athlete had the right idea but poor execution. I am sure that the dynamic of sports agent, PR person and lawyers was a hard one for her to manage. Her instinct, to get out and apologize was correct. She needed a more skeptical PR person to insist that the tough questions be answered in her statement. The only way she can regain the trust of her fans and sponsors is to not fail any future drug tests. As a fan of her “never say die” and “compete until you drop” attitude, I hope this is not the last we see of Sharapova.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.
Image by Beth.