Social media/PR

Be your own PR expert: What you can learn from pro athletes

Nick Merrill | March 07, 2014

The world gasped when Muhammad Ali publicly spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 and refused to join the military. As a result, he had his heavyweight title stripped and his boxing license suspended, costing him nearly four years in the prime of his career.

More than 40 years later, athletes are still committing the same mistakes with their public image. Sometimes, tact and decorum are hard to come by for professional athletes, adrenaline pumping after a great win. Here’s a look at three athletes who should have reconsidered what they were about to say:

Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks

“I’m the best corner in the game!” shouted Sherman, after making a game-winning deflection on San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. This line has become so famous, the iPhone personal assistant Siri just told me Sherman was the best cornerback in the league.

His brusque comments to Fox Sports sideline reporter Erin Andrews drastically changed the public’s opinion of him — he was painted as a thug and a braggart. While his team went on to dominate in the Super Bowl, if he had taken a breath and reconsidered his words, he wouldn’t have had to work so hard to regain the public favor.

Sherman’s comments — and subsequent backpedaling — should be a lesson to us all: If you’re caught up in the emotions of a situation, it’s probably best to let your actions — or your PR agent — handle the comments and interviews.

Riley Cooper, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

While not in the same vein as an on-field celebration, Cooper was caught on camera shouting a racial slur at a security guard during a concert in the summer of 2013. He immediately apologized, first on Twitter and then later at a news conference.

Things looked bleak for his future in the league — let alone with the Eagles — until he received support from an unlikely source: Michael Vick. Combined with his solid performance on the field, Cooper has actually recovered some of his public image.

And now, Cooper has agreed to a new five-year contract with the Eagles, another good sign that his career has survived a potentially devastating gaffe.

Chris Kluwe, P, Minnesota Vikings

In an expose article he wrote for Deadspin, Kluwe revealed a controversy that took place during the 2012-13 NFL season. During that time, he became publicly outspoken in favor of gay rights. While he always did so as a private citizen and not as a spokesperson for the team, Kluwe was approached repeatedly by head coach Leslie Frazier and asked to keep his activism quiet. He politely refused.

After months of continued harassment from coaches and staff, Kluwe was released by the Vikings in May 2013. Kluwe said in the article, “I honestly don’t know if my activism was the reason I got fired. However, I’m pretty confident it was.”

While Kluwe, unlike Sherman and Cooper, didn’t speak hastily or without forethought, his words themselves were inflammatory in nature. Expressing one’s beliefs is important, but it is sometimes best to take the advice of your employers and keep your opinions to yourself.

While attitudes toward homosexuality are changing in the NFL, it has still been a slow road. Kluwe knew what he was doing was against the wishes of his coaching staff, but he persisted and was fired because of it. If he had kept his opinions out of the public eye, he may still be employed as an NFL punter.

We can learn a lot about handling life in the public eye from sports figures who still have a lot to learn. By keeping in mind what can happen when you don’t think before you speak, you can avoid making social blunders, keep your job and maybe even make a little more money that you would otherwise.