On average, athletes get arrested less often than the rest of the population but the public can be unforgiving of a player who runs afoul of the law or whose off-field escapades are publicized. There are regular examples of athletes having dependency issues, marital problems, outbursts of anger, physical violence, and issues the rest of our society faces regularly, and they pay the price in more ways than one.
One difference to keep in mind between working crisis situations with athlete clients and non-athlete clients are the ramifications on business interests of athlete clients can be much more severe than your non-athlete clients. With a 24-hour news cycle, and social media spreading breaking news across the world instantaneously, it does not take long for people to find out when an athlete has done something shocking or has trouble with law enforcement.
When a professional athlete is arrested, the arrest is often followed by a suspension and a fine from the league. While the fine from the league may sting and be the public focus initially, the real loss of income for the athlete’s actions often results from the negative view of the sponsors licensing the athlete’s image, athlete’s volunteer activities, and business interests.
First, athletes who face crisis situations are likely to face a serious threat of being dropped by corporate sponsors. In most endorsement deals, companies demand a “morality clause” to give the sponsor a way to distance itself and terminate a relationship if the athlete conducts his/herself in certain ways. In the event the morality clause is triggered, most contracts allow the sponsor to terminate the agreement and walk away.
Second, many athletes try to give back using their significant platform as a professional athlete. Some create foundations or non-profits and others work with local entities or team with existing organizations/causes. An arrest of an athlete for domestic violence or endangering a child can bankrupt a quality organization focused on these causes if the face of their organization gets in trouble with these issues.
Third, businesses known to be owned by an athlete or than have an athlete investor can suffer from public backlash following the arrest of an athlete. Think Lance Armstrong and his association with the Livestrong brand. When the public pulls away from an athlete, they will also pull away from businesses associated with the athlete as well.
So how do you protect your athlete’s interests from being destroyed if your athlete client does something foolish? Here are some pointers:
- Negotiate the moral compass. When negotiating and reviewing morality clauses in sponsorship agreements, understand that sponsors want to work with your client and their first choice is not likely termination of the sponsorship. Negotiate the actions the sponsor does not want the athlete to do, and instead of giving the sponsor an option to immediately terminate the deal, negotiate a cooling off period to reevaluate after the crisis situation has been resolved. There are many cases of an athlete being arrested for something only to find out the athlete had no fault in a situation. Your athlete should not be penalized for someone else’s vendetta.
- Build a foundation for the foundation’s sake. Non-profit attorneys working with athletes should understand the motivations of the athlete forming a foundation. If the athlete’s primary motivation is to use the foundation as a way to help, you may not need to put the athlete’s name in the foundation’s name in order to have it raise money. Avoiding a name association with a cause can help the cause continue to raise funds in the event the public perception turning on the athlete.
- Be in the business of business. A business should not collapse because of the words or actions of its athlete owner. An athlete’s ancillary business interests should be insulated from negative press as much as possible. If an athlete is active in a business interest when trouble hits, get another person in the company to take over his/her role until the storm has calmed. Get a public relations professional answer all of the questions about a crisis situation and have the athlete’s business refrain from commenting on the situation.
- Build a team. As an athlete lawyer, you can only handle so much in crisis situations. In the event an athlete faces a crisis situation, bring in key players like a criminal defense attorney, public relations rep, etc. Also, work with the team of agents, business managers, and others already familiar with your athlete. Someone should be able to handle each aspect of your athlete client’s life in these situations – including protecting the athlete’s off-field interests.
Working crisis situations with athlete clients can be challenging. If you plan ahead and have an idea of what the ramifications your athlete will face can make the situation a little easier for everyone involved. Remember, if your client stays safe he won’t get called out in the court of public opinion!