Toughest jobs in sports: Publicist for Alex Rodriguez
Ask folks in the sports business industry which once-popular athlete’s reputation would be toughest for a public relations specialist to repair, and one fallen star’s name comes up more often than any other.
Not Michael Vick despite his damaging felony dog-fighting conviction. Not Tiger Woods despite the scandal that exposed him as a serial adulterer. Not even Luis Suarez despite the Uruguayan soccer star’s alarming habit of biting opposing players.
Disgraced New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was the choice of more than half of the eight sports business and crisis communications experts surveyed by Yahoo Sports. They believe Rodriguez’s brand may never recover from being busted twice for steroids after insisting for years he was clean. Defiantly fighting his punishment instead of showing contrition or remorse also surely hasn’t helped matters.
Corroborating the theory Rodriguez’s image will be tough to salvage are the results of an annual poll conducted by Forbes Magazine to determine the most disliked athletes in all of sports. Rodriguez has appeared in the top 10 every year but one since 2009, a sign he may have too many red flags to be appealing to baseball franchises in the market for a slugger next winter, let alone corporations seeking a pitchman.
“Of all the athletes who have been through some issues, the one I wouldn’t want to touch is Alex Rodriguez,” said Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University. “It’s not only the steroid allegations but his attitude. He has a reputation for being smug and arrogant and thin-skinned and kind of a loner. Given that, I think it would be extremely challenging to rehabilitate him or change the perception of him.”
The man with the unenviable responsibility to try to paint Rodriguez as a sympathetic figure is Ron Berkowitz, the publicist hired by the third baseman in June 2013 after he jettisoned renowned crisis management firm Sitrick and Company. Berkowitz, founder of New York-based Berk Communications, is best known for his work with Rodriguez’s friend, Jay-Z, as publicist for the sports management company the rap mogul founded last year.
It’s unclear what Berkowitz’s strategy in the coming months will be with Rodriguez because the publicist did not respond to requests to outline his plan of attack after initially being receptive. Rodriguez last spoke publicly in January at a promotional appearance for a Mexico City gym he supports, reiterating his desire to return to the Yankees once his season-long suspension is over and expressing hope the year off will allow him to “rest mentally and physically” for his comeback.
Experts in crisis management don’t believe hiding from the spotlight gives Rodriguez the best chance to win back the trust of the public or facilitate a speedy return to baseball once his season-long suspension is over. They instead recommend he break his silence with a heartfelt, unscripted apology during a hard-hitting TV interview with a respected journalist who will treat him harshly but fairly.
It would be hard for a Rodriguez apology to be credible since he already told baseball fans he was sorry once in 2009 and he has spent the past 18 months denying the latest steroid accusations against him. Nonetheless, crisis communications specialists say that is his best chance to launch a comeback, especially if he follows up on it by going into the community to teach kids about the dangers of steroids and finding some ex-teammates or coaches willing to publicly vouch for his character.
“There’s almost no one the American sports fan won’t be willing to forgive if the athlete has the right amount of remorse and sincerity,” said Kevin Sullivan, a crisis management consultant who previously served as George W. Bush’s director of communications from 2006-08. “Donald Sterling has crossed the line where he’s beyond the point of reclamation, but we love a good comeback story. It’s a short list of guys that have done something where they can’t find their way back.”
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When crisis management firms decide whether they can help a scandal-tainted public figure, they typically separate prospective clients into two categories: redeemable and hopeless.
Murder or child molestation charges instantly land athletes in the hopeless category. A long history of racism often also does the same. Of the scandals deemed recoverable — adultery, spousal abuse, drunk driving charges, a drug habit and the like — steroid use can actually be one of the most difficult to overcome from a perception standpoint because of the erosion of public trust in the athlete’s credibility and performance.
Lance Armstrong’s confession and apology to Oprah Winfrey last year did little to help him repair the damage caused by lying about doping for more than a decade and bullying those who accused him into backing down. Barry Bonds also hasn’t helped his image at all by taking the opposite approach and steadfastly denying steroid use despite ample evidence to the contrary.
“I think performance-enhancing drugs are one of the hardest to come back from,” said David E. Johnson, CEO of the Atlanta-based public relations firm Strategic Vision. “When an athlete is caught using them and he has denied it for years, it makes people question them. ‘Are you really this great star we thought you were or are you something different?'”
One reason Rodriguez may have even less of a chance of repairing his image than most other steroid users is he was already a polarizing figure even before PED allegations surfaced.
Anointed baseball’s $252 million man in 2000 after becoming the highest-paid athlete in American sports history, Rodriguez turned into a target for years to come because of his salary. It set such a high bar for Rodriguez that he received more criticism for his occasional postseason failures than he did praise for a .299 career batting average, eight 40-plus home run seasons and three American League MVP awards.
The way Rodriguez behaved also rubbed some the wrong way and fueled more bad press. From extra-marital affairs that led to the end of his marriage, to a photoshoot in which he kissed his own image in the mirror, to the time he wrote his phone number on two baseballs and threw them to two women behind the dugout during a playoff loss, Rodriguez often projected a bizarre combination of narcissism and insecurity.
Remarkably, Rodriguez’s decorum often wasn’t much better between the baselines. In one memorable play during Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez drew the ire of the Red Sox when he slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove as the Boston pitcher was coming to tag him out. Three years later, he infamously shouted, “Ha, I got it” as he ran the bases, distracting two Toronto infielders and causing a pop-up to fall.
“A lot of the dislike for Alex Rodriguez isn’t even about steroids. It’s about his persona,” said Bob Dorfman, sports marketing expert at San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising. “You look at how good a performer he was consistently throughout his career, and yet he just seemed to screw himself with everything he did.”
Whatever likability Rodriguez still had eroded further in 2009 when a bombshell Sports Illustrated report forced him to apologize for using steroids from 2001-03 as a member of the Texas Rangers. The scandal was especially embarrassing for Rodriguez because he had vehemently denied even being tempted to use steroids two years prior in an interview with 60 Minutes, telling Katie Couric, “I’ve never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I’ve always been a very strong, dominant position.”
The fallout from Rodriguez’s initial steroid confession diminished interest in Rodriguez on the endorsement market. Pepsi already had chosen not to renew Rodriguez’s contract two years prior. Guitar Hero quickly yanked a commercial featuring Rodriguez off the airwaves. Nike was the only major corporation to publicly stand behind the Yankees slugger but it too de-emphasized him in its campaigns.
If salvaging Rodriguez’s image was already challenging at that point, a new set of allegations four years later surely didn’t garner further sympathy. On Jan. 29, 2013, the Miami New Times sent Rodriguez scrambling for a defense strategy when it reported that he and dozens of other professional athletes had purchased HGH and anabolic steroids for years from a small Miami anti-aging clinic run by a man named Tony Bosch.
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One of the cardinal rules of crisis management is to respond to breaking news within 12 hours so clients can get out in front of a scandal rather than letting someone else control the message. That often requires making a speedy decision whether to deny charges or address them comprehensively, apologize and move on.
When the Miami New Times allegations surfaced, Rodriguez issued a firm denial within hours through his public relations team from Sitrick and Company but the statement eventually came back to haunt the Yankees slugger. It claimed that the “purported relationship” between Rodriguez and Bosch was not true and that Rodriguez “was not Mr. Bosch’s patient, he was never treated by him and he was never advised by him,” all of which was disproved as text messages and documents surfaced during the next few months. By August, lawyers for Rodriguez conceded their client and Bosch had a “consulting relationship” but insisted Bosch merely advised him on nutritional matters.
Publicist Ron Berkowitz and Alex Rodriguez at the 40/40 Club in New York City. (Getty Images)
Why did Rodriguez opt to deny the charges and initially lie about his ties to Bosch? Terry Fahn of Sitrick and Company declined comment on Rodriguez, but a New York Magazine story from last December offers some clues. It said Sitrick suggested taking the high road and avoiding entering a fistfight with the 800-pound gorilla that is Major League Baseball, but Rodriguez was too furious to heed that advice.
Rodriguez overhauled his legal and public relations teams in June 2013 in the midst of his bid to get his 211-game suspension thrown out, but the switch from a more restrained approach under Sitrick and Company to a more aggressive one with Berkowitz did not immediately pay off.
Lawyer Joe Tacopina opened a contentious interview with TODAY Show host Matt Lauer on August 19 with a gambit he had tried before. Said Tacopina, “If the vice president of Major League Baseball would be good enough to waive the confidentiality clause, I’d love nothing more than to talk about Alex Rodriguez’s testing history and various things.”
Major League Baseball officials were clearly ready for Tacopina’s ploy because they sent Lauer a letter the night before promising to do exactly that if Rodriguez would follow suit. A flustered Tacopina backpedaled and refused, insisting that the league was trying to trap him and dancing around Lauer’s ensuing questions about whether Rodriguez had used steroids, what Rodriguez’s relationship was with Bosch and why Rodriguez paid the retainer fees for one of Bosch’s lawyers.
Rodriguez’s team had some success disparaging the tactics the league used gathering evidence against him, but ultimately they neither cleared his name in either the public or legal domain. In January, an arbitrator upheld most of the 211-game penalty sought by the league, a decision Rodriguez angrily insisted he’d continue to fight afterward.
“The number of games sadly comes as no surprise, as the deck has been stacked against me from Day 1,” Rodriguez said in a statement through Berkowitz.
“No player should have to go through what I have been dealing with, and I am exhausting all options to ensure not only that I get justice, but that players’ contracts and rights are protected through the next round of bargaining, and that the M.L.B. investigation and arbitration process cannot be used against others in the future the way it is currently being used to unjustly punish me.”
By simultaneously portraying himself as the victim and pledging to continue to fight, crisis PR experts say Rodriguez once again made the challenge of rehabilitating his reputation even tougher. Perhaps that’s why Rodriguez has largely vanished from the public eye during his suspension — to give Berkowitz time to craft a plan to coincide with his potential return to baseball next year.
Will that plan include a confession or apology? Berkowitz isn’t saying, but even if it does, sports business experts believe far too much damage has already been done for Rodriguez to sway public opinion, win over skeptical Hall of Fame voters or reenter the endorsement market.
“Alex Rodriguez’s endorsement career is over,” said Steve Rosner, co-founder of New Jersey-based 16W Marketing. “He might be able to make money signing his autograph, but Alex Rodriguez will never in my opinion have an endorsement deal with a reputable company. We are a very forgiving country, but you don’t lie to the public. Alex Rodriguez has that on his shoulders.”