False accusations can destroy an athlete’s career. Often, claims will be made by people who may know an athlete and have had a falling out with them or someone who is a degree removed from an athlete. Motivations differ, but it is common for some people to make false accusations motivated by money or attention. Regardless of the accuser’s motivation, a mere accusation can cost your athlete client their career and future ability to generate income.
Most professional athletes are young, good-looking, charismatic, and have high profiles. Generally, your athlete client’s are recognizable and strangers are attracted to them because they are on television. Just like when a local news anchor walks into a restaurant, wherever an athlete goes people will look twice.
I have covered the financial status of most professional athletes in previous articles. However, many people believe that if you are on television, you have a lot of money. Like moths to a flame, athletes draw scam artists and false claims. It is difficult for an athlete to recognize who is trying to take advantage of them and who will threaten their careers by holding it hostage. Just as with any good lie, the claim will have bits of truth to it, making it difficult for others to decipher who is telling the truth.
So what do you do when your athlete client comes to you with, or you receive an allegation of wrongdoing? The answer: you do everything you can.
Determine the problem: First, figure out what you are dealing with and how bad it can be for your athlete client. What is the accusation? What parts of the accusation are true? Could it result in criminal charges? Civil damages? Damage to the athlete client’s image? Could the team/league take action? You should reinforce with your athlete client that the attorney-client privilege will cover all of the information the athlete tells you. The more accurate information you can get your hands on, the better.
Draft your team: A lawyer can only do so much. You will need help from all sorts of professionals in a crisis situation. Some people you will likely need to gather information from and lean on when managing a crisis for an athlete client may include criminal defense lawyers, the athlete’s agent, business manager, publicists, a social media manager, private security, a private investigator and more. In these cases the lawyer needs to be the quarterback, not just another player on the team. The important thing your team needs to understand and respect is that you are leading the charge during the crisis and you will be developing the message.
Set the message: In the good old days, it was smart to wait to collect all the information prior to responding to a crisis. With the 24-hour news cycle and social media landscape today, a response to a crisis should be made quickly and accurately. While you will need to gather information and it will take time, the court of public opinion is impatient. An initial message to the public should be accurate and convey your client understands the seriousness of the situation. As a lawyer, you want to be as transparent and honest as possible without making statements that could cause your client further liability, regardless of the truthfulness of an allegation.
Deliver the message: The person delivering, and the actual delivery is just as important as the message. Determine who should deliver the message and how it should be delivered. Sometimes the messenger will be your client. Sometimes it will be you and other times it could be another person. The person delivering the message needs to be respectable and the medium used should be appropriate for the situation as well.
Be proactive: As you investigate the situation, look under all rocks and work with those parties who can be helpful to your client. Asking for security tapes, statements from witnesses, and evidence from the events leading to the claims will help uncover the truth. If you are sure your client did nothing wrong, contact the local authorities and work with your athlete client’s agent to open a dialogue with the league/team so your client does not have to deal with future investigations.
Solve the problem: Often, athletes facing false accusations did some things or were in places they should avoid now and in the future. Work with your athlete clients to identify these situations and ways to avoid them in the future.
Fix other problems before they develop: After a thorough investigation, you will likely find ways to keep other claims from being made and ways to keep your athlete client in better controlled situations. For example, I make sure my athlete clients have the Uber and Lyft apps on their phone. All of their phones. Many athletes (most recently soccer star Abby Wombach) face crisis situations because they drive after a few drinks. This problem is inexcusable and can easily be solved. Another recommendation is for an athlete or other high-profile client to use social media only after they have left an event. If they broadcast where they are at the moment, it provides opportunists the chance at creating a situation that would not otherwise occur.
Rehabilitate the Image: Having a public relations team ready to go is critical in providing the best service to athlete clients. In any crisis, the lawyer needs to lead the way. That means covering bases you may not otherwise typically handle. You can have others do some of the work but help guide them with what the goal is. It may take time for you, the agent, and the public relations team to get an athlete back in a positive light, but do what is needed to get the job done.
Don’t panic when your athlete client calls with a crisis. Keep your cool, and be a closer who can save your client.