Money Smart Athlete Blog

Athletes whose public image took a turn for the worse

Dec 7, 2022 | Public Perception

By Vasilia Polycarpou, The Sports Financial Literacy Academy      

We have all seen phenomenal athletes, who were once idolized, having their reputation torn down due to their reckless behavior. Numerous athletes who had been highly successful in their sport, ended up jeopardizing all their hard work by acting carelessly in their personal life, tarnishing their name and the general public’s perception of them. In the era of social media and cancel culture, a hero can turn into a villain in a split second.

Wayne Rooney is a famous example of a successful professional athlete whose private life and actions got in the way of his career, negatively impacting his brand and consequently his sponsorships. Specifically, in 2010, former soccer player Wayne Rooney was in the spotlight after allegations of involvement in a cheating scandal, when at the time his wife was pregnant with their first child. This, in addition to an on-air foul-mouthed rant, caused his drop from Coca-Cola, which not only removed him from their ads but also completely cut ties with him, because of his behavior.

Another example worth mentioning, is that of former Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice, who was at the peak of his professional football career, when he was involved in a domestic assault case, against his fiancé, whom he allegedly knocked unconscious in an elevator in 2014, according to a TMZ video. He was immediately dropped by Nike, who removed his jerseys from their stores, Vertimax, Electronic Arts, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and any other sponsor he had. He was also cut from the Ravens and never played in the National Football League ever since.

Lamar Odom, two-time NBA World Champion and 2011 “Sixth Man of the Year” is another professional athlete whose downfall was very public. The former basketball star’s career ended abruptly due to his on-going tangle with hard drugs which nearly killed him, whilst also having his private struggles playing out on reality television. According to reports, Odom found himself in hospital in a medically-induced coma after a drug-fueled binge. Odom nearly lost everything personally and professionally in a very public way.

Nothing says tarnished image, like having to return your gold medals. Marion Jones, one of United States’ best female track and field runners, who won gold medals in the 1997 and 1999 World Championships, in addition to three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. Despite her initial claims of being drug free throughout her high school, collegiate and professional career, she later admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. She was found guilty of lying to investigators and of using various forms of performance-enhancing drugs before, after, and during the Sydney Olympics. She spent six months in prison, was ordered to return all medals won in Sydney and was forced to retire.

What the aforementioned examples tell us, is that reputational damage can be catastrophic for a professional athlete’s career, especially if the right measures for damage control are not taken. Therefore, athletes who are in the public eye should think twice about what they say and how they act in their professional as well as their private lives. Fans are the people who can make or break them, depending on the image they portray publicly, so acting in an ethical way should be above everything else.

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