Lately, a good catalyst for big headaches for PR companies seems to be college football teams. Perhaps it’s because they are constantly embroiled in scandals, including high-end school supporters illegally paying athletes in violation of NCAA and campus rules, and players getting in trouble with the law.
According to the sports blogging website Arrest Nation there were 250 collegiate football players were arrested, cited, or charged in 2014. This staggering number is more than every other college sport combined. Out of the four major sports, basketball comes in second with 60, baseball third with 10, and ice hockey in fourth with a measly two.
So when things start heading south because a star college player was just arrested, and you know this has the potential to be a lead story on ESPN, what’s the best PR option to take? One immediate thought is to sweep the situation under the rug by claiming it’s all a misunderstanding and that the public has totally misconstrued the situation. This might work for second and third string guys, but it will be very difficult for a star to get by unscathed. All it takes is one newspaper or sportscaster sniffing it out, and then suddenly the coach is in hot water for trying to hide it, as the trend indicates nowadays.
The best road to take is a proactive one. Don’t let the big media outlets out-scoop you before you’ve had a chance to organize an exclusive interview or press conference. If you’re the coach or person responsible for monitoring the player’s actions, come prepared with exactly what you want to say. Your statement(s) should include three PR basics:
- Issue an immediate apology on behalf of both the team and school.
- Outline an appropriate punishment for the player involved.
- Describe how you will take action to prevent similar scenarios from occurring in the future.
Above all else, you want your fans, and the public, to believe the incident is being taken very seriously and is wholly unacceptable.
Learn from Jimbo Fisher’s example. Fisher has served as head coach for the Florida State Seminoles since 2010 and has found himself under scrutiny over the past couple of years regarding the off-field shenanigans of his players. His 2013-14 star quarterback, Jameis Winston, was involved in four separate altercations during his time as a Seminole.
Trouble with the law didn’t disappear for the Seminoles once Winston left for the NFL. In one month’s time, two Florida State football players, running back Dalvin Cook and freshman quarterback De’Andre Johnson, were caught on a surveillance video punching a woman at a bar near campus. By then, Fisher had had enough. He indefinitely suspended Dalvin Cook and kicked De’Andre Johnson off the team. In an effort to keep his players out of trouble, Coach Fisher announced he has put a ban on players visiting all bars in the area.
With 15,000 athletes playing Division 1 football and 250 finding themselves in trouble, some argue that the crime per capita in college football is less than it is in the United States. Note the 250 figure includes all cases, convicted or thrown out. In 2011, CBS News found that out of the 2,837 players on Sports Illustrated 2010 top 25 pre-season football rosters, more than 200 had been in trouble with the law. Thirty-nine percent of those who’d been arrested had been charged with serious crimes such as assault and battery, domestic violence, burglary, cocaine possession or DUI. Another startling fact uncovered was that only two schools did any regular criminal background checks on their recruits.
To save yourself a lot of PR pain, stay ahead of the curve and know who your players are before you add them to the roster. Wins are one thing, but they fall into the background if controversies overshadow a team.
–Salvatore Tecci, Intern, Team Paula