PR lessons from the warts of sports: 2021 and 2022 ushered in a tarnished game—will 2023 be different?

by | Jan 31, 2023 | Marketing, Public Relations

Some things never change, and one of those things is the glorification of sports in America. But anyone who closely follows the sports scene can notice that things are changing, especially readers of the New York Times.

No longer does the Times’ sports section act as a PR arm of sports leagues

Over the past few years, the Times has decided not to cover all 162 baseball games of New York’s two Major League Baseball teams on a daily basis. The same is true for other sports—football, basketball and hockey—that once were covered as if every game was the equivalent of Covid-19 meds or a cure for cancer. Instead the Times now features recurring columns about those sports. and the space that used to describe the daily actions of them now is devoted to reporting on former neglected topics, like soccer, the societal implications of sports, or on sports personalities with unusual stories to tell.

While the New York Times deserves credit for ushering in a new era of sports reporting, the years 2021 and 2022 deserves credit for exposing the warts of sports on a constant basis not seen since the exposure of the National Football League’s efforts to camouflage the science revealing that hits to the head can cause serious life-changing damage to brains, including death. The Times was not alone reporting about how concussions on the football field can lead to life-changing infirmities off the gridiron. In 1994, according to a PBS timeline, “NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue creates the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, and appoints New York Jets team doctor and rheumatologist Dr. Elliot Pellman as chair, despite lacking any previous experience in brain science.”

Thus, perhaps the greatest PR triumph since our business was invented, in cooperation with an acquiescent media—convincing a large percentage of our society that sports brings out the best in people—is no longer fostered by Times editors, despite the millions of dollars spent each year by leagues, team owners, networks and sports marketers to convey the message that sporting events are an essential part of America instead of just being another part of the entertainment business.

Despite the best efforts of sports moguls to present its products as wholesome, sports have always had warts—and that is no longer a sports family secret. At one time the warts were kept from the public by a compliant media that did little to no reporting about them. But that symbiotic relationship has largely disappeared from the print media; sadly, it is still alive on game-day broadcasting.

But despite the propaganda barrage from the sports world, the years 2021 and 2022 exposed these verruca vulgaris as never before

Because within six months the International Olympic Committee, the self-governing power that controls what I consider the most important of all sporting events—the Olympics—once again behaved horrendously, exposing its flaws to criticism from democratic-loving politicians, human rights leaders and medical scientists at an unrivaled pace since it awarded its games to Nazi Germany in 1936.

It insisted that the Summer Olympics be played in Japan in July 2021, despite medical scientists warning that doing so might make the dangerous Covid-19 virus, which killed more than four million people at the time of the games, into even a deadlier worldwide killer. And despite China’s outrageous conduct on the world stage and its horrendous treatment of its citizens on the mainland and Hong Kong the IOC would not remove the February 2022 Winter Olympic games from a threatening authoritarian country.

Some of the warts that blemish sports are fairly new, like the above-mentioned IOC insisting that its games be played during a deadly Covid-19 pandemic in Tokyo over the objections of Japanese medical scientist and citizens, and praising China for its Olympics while ignoring its expansionist foreign policy and human rights violations.

But some of the warts of sports have age spots—and not all date back before many of today’s athletes were born

A more current wart blossomed in 2019 after Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” After several days of criticism that he was appeasing the Chinese government, National Basketball Commissioner Adam Silver came out in support of NBA personal having the right to express their opinions. (But as the Times reported, “LeBron James on Monday night sharply criticized Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, for his recent tweet in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.”)

Another current wart eruption is team owners taking financial positions in gambling companies and the NFL, after years of saying it will never permit a team to move to Las Vegas, permitting the Oakland Raiders to relocate to the Sin City.

Major League Baseball’s warts date back further

For years, the moguls that run the sport turned blind eyes to their employees, the players, use of steroids. But that changed, when on March 17, 2005, the House Committee on Government Reform held hearings. Ten players and executives testified under oath about the use of the banned PEDs, resulting in the leagues cracking down on its use.

As all but the most fanatical sports fans and many in the business will admit, festering warts have been common in our sports culture forever, both in the professional and so-called amateur ranks, like college football and basketball, which I call semi-pro leagues.

Here are only a few major examples, limited to the American stage:

  • For decades, the NFL not only denied that its employees would suffer brain damage from hard hits, but also attempted to destroy the reputation and career of a leading researcher in brain trauma.
  • Only the actions of the NFL prevented MLB from being at the top of the sports warts list. For decades baseball was a lily white segregated business. It wasn’t until the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945 that the color line was broken. Even then, certain teams took a while before signing accomplished African-American players.
  • The United States Olympic Committee has at least as many warts as a warthog, including sex scandals in gymnastics, swimming, taekwondo and volleyball. But years before the sex scandals, pleas from various politicians, like New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, New York governor Al Smith, and Massachusetts governor James Curley. opposed sending a team to the 1936 games in Berlin, along with Ernst Lee Jahncke, an American member of the International Olympic Committee. They were joined by the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and George Messersmith, head of the U.S. Legation in Vienna. But the then American Olympic Committee decided to participate in the Nazi Olympics. They sent its president Avery Brundage to examine prejudice against German Jewish athletes and he reported that he saw no discrimination, despite Nazi actions against Jews. (Jahncke, a former assistant U.S. Secretary of the Navy, was expelled from the IOC for his public opposition to the games and was replaced by Brundage.) A May 9, 1975 Associated Press obituary in the New York Times, quoted Brundage as saying, “The politics of a nation is of no concern to the International Olympic Committee. Nonparticipation would do more harm than good. Hitler would still go on. The Nazi would go on … Certain Jews must now understand that they cannot use these games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis,” even though the move to boycott the Olympics was popular among all facets of American society and some of the most outspoken opponents of U.S. participation were Catholic government officials and “The Commonweal,” the Catholic journal.
  • Football and baseball owners must be the most forgiving of all business executives. Despite multiple unsportsmanlike activities by its players, as long as an athlete can help a team players are given several chances despite breaking the rules.

Steroids, gambling and concussions only affect select individuals. But even though a significant part of my career has been entwined with sports—first as a journalist and then on sports marketing programs—I always believed that too much emphasis in our media was devoted to crowning sports heroes.

We are now in the early stages of 2023 so there’s still plenty of time for new sports warts to be exposed or to see the new excuses the NFL comes up with the next time a key player is accused of abusing his spouse or girlfriend as a battering ram and also to see if Tom Brady will announce his retirement and once again change his mind.

The important lessons for PR pros

The coverage of sports by sports writers have changed dramatically over the decades. Before suggesting a sports tie-in to a client, PR people should advise the client of four things:

  • Mega-sporting events are magnets for demonstrations, and programs must be crafted with that in mind.
  • If a client is sponsoring an event in a totalitarian country., there’s a likelihood that protests against your client’s participation might occur (as it did during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.) Be prepared for such an occurrence. Don’t wait until protests begin to plan responses.
  • Before suggesting a sports tie-in to a client, PR people should advise the client that as sports has evolved into the big business category, it is now covered like other businesses and the warts of sports now receive major coverage—which might cast the spotlight on sports marketers.
  • And that sports marketers’ comments like, “We just follow the athletes” are a joke among sports writers.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.