For a professional athlete who failed a drug test, Maria Sharapova did something very unusual: She held a press conference and announced it. No deny and lie. No bobbing and weaving. No ducking and hiding. She fessed up and took responsibility.
Sammy Sosa. Barry Bonds. Lance Armstrong. Alex Rodriguez. Marion Jones. The playing field is littered with athletes who were accused of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) and professed their innocence. Most eventually admitted they used PEDs. Roger Clemens, for one, never has. There are still many who believe he lied to Congress, despite being acquitted on that charge in 2012. His chances of making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame are slim to none.
Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is the one that really sticks in my mind. Not only was he a phenomenal athlete, winning the Tour de France seven consecutive times, he is a cancer survivor and started the Lance Armstrong Foundation to help other cancer survivors.
Rumors and allegations of Armstrong’s doping started in 2002, when he was a member of the U.S. Postal Service team. In 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) filed doping charges against him. He angrily denied the charges for a full year, finally coming clean to Oprah Winfrey in 2013.
The fallout was huge. Nike terminated its contract. Anheuser-Busch did not renew theirs. He was stripped of his wins and received a lifetime ban from participating in professional sports. The Lance Armstrong Foundation formerly dropped his name and changed it to The LIVESTRONG Foundation. He stepped down.
Lance Armstrong was a hero to many. Now for many of us, he will be remembered as an arrogant liar and cheater.
Compare that to how Sharapova has handled her situation. Rather than waiting for her failed drug test to be released or leaked, she preemptively held a press conference to announce it. She did not rely on a spokesperson or written statement. She faced a bank of reporters, photographers and cameras and said what happened. She took responsibility. What she did took a lot of courage and it showed character and conviction.
Sharapova took a page from a good crisis communications manual: Get ahead of the story and frame bad news on your own terms—before someone else does. By making the announcement she avoided “death by a thousand cuts” and also controlled the message and the visuals used in every print and broadcast story. That also means there is no footage of her avoiding cameras, dashing from a building or restaurant into a dark SUV.
Sure, Sharapova’s major sponsors: Nike, Tag Heuer, and Porsche suspended their sponsorships. They have brands to protect so that is not a surprise. But, they did not completely slam the door shut. And by controlling the narrative, Sharapova’s sponsors knew what was coming, and could act quickly. So that piece of the story was not dragged out for days.
With her bold move, let’s hope that Maria Sharapova has written a new crisis communication playbook that other athletes can learn from. Game, set, match.
Editor’s Note: Always fine to set the record straight. But better to do so without sounding defensive. Much more of this and Sharapova will start to undo the goodwill she established with her presser.