The release of the Mitchell Report, a two-year investigation headed by former Senator George Mitchell into the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Major League Baseball (“MLB”) players, has proved to be a bonanza for public relations voyeurs. Players named in the report have employed a wide range of public relations tactics with mixed results.
The Attack: Retired player David Justice is the only individual who immediately went on the attack following the release of the report. Justice was named in the report by former New York Yankees trainer Brian McNamee and former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, both of whom have admitted to selling and distributing steroids and human growth hormone (“HGH”). They said that Justice used HGH in 2000, not long after he was traded to the Yankees.
Justice, now a commentator for a network owned by the Yankees, has vehemently denied that he ever used HGH. Beginning the day the Mitchell Report was released, Justice has been interviewed on numerous radio shows and by print reporters, and each time he has readily admitted that McNamee supplied him with HGH once in 2000 while he was trying to recover from an injury. Justice, however, claims he never used the drug because it had to be injected, saying that he is scared of needles. He also said that had the drug been in a pill form, he would have taken it.
The thrust of Justice’s argument is that McNamee was a qualified trainer who told him to take the drug during the normal course of an injury rehabilitation and that he was just a ballplayer, ignorant as to what HGH is and trusting of a medical professional. He claims to have never used the drug and has noted that information in the report regarding his supposed purchase is not corroborated by other evidence, as is the case with other ballplayers.
Justice has made a persuasive argument, probably the most persuasive of anyone involved in the Mitchell Report. He has attacked the charges against him by detailing the alleged incident, pointing out holes in his accuser’s stories and explaining what his thinking at the time was, providing some much-needed perspective for the public. More important, Justice has been proactive in his PR efforts and he has used the media to his advantage, pushing his side of the story instead of letting the story envelop him.
The Admission: Thus far, about six players named in the Mitchell Report have admitted using HGH. Their admissions have been received with varying results.
Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte is by far the most notable admitted HGH user. Pettitte initially refused to comment but released a statement around midday Saturday, or two days after the Mitchell Report was released. Pettitte’s statement is a well-crafted message in which he admits to using HGH, explains why, refutes other media reports and asks the public to put his actions into context. He also questions whether his actions were wrong at the time but acknowledges he made a mistake.
Gary Bennett is probably the person least familiar to baseball fans who has “come clean.” A career back-up catcher with numerous teams, Bennett admitted his HGH use when asked by reporters a day after the report was released, and he offered an apology, but no excuses, saying he made a “stupid decision.” Earlier this week and after admitting his HGH use, Bennett signed a new contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Currently an analyst for ESPN, Fernando Vina waited for five days before granting his employer an interview and admitting he used HGH towards the end of his career. Vina denied using steroids, though he skirted one question about what the checks he wrote to Radomski were for. Vina said his HGH came out of “desperation” to continue his career, which was beset by injuries. “Bottom line. It was stupid. I’m embarrassed now, and it didn’t help, either,” Vina said. It’s unclear whether ESPN will continue to employ him.
Baltimore Orioles second basemen Brian Roberts was one of the more troubling names in the Mitchell Report because he has publicly denied using performance-enhancing drugs in the past. Roberts, however, said on Monday evening that he used HGH once in 2003, essentially verifying claims made by former teammate Larry Bigbie in the Mitchell Report. (Bigbie told investigators that Roberts had told him that Roberts had used HGH “once or twice.”) Roberts said he used HGH just once, admits he made a mistake and asked fans, teammates and others for forgiveness.
Two other former players, Dan Naulty and F.P. Santangelo, also admitted their HGH use. Neither player made much of an impact during their careers and their admissions were met with ambivalence.
Of the players who have admitted HGH use, Bennett is the only one who has not taken a huge PR hit. Fans care little about journeymen players and Bennett has already scored a new contract, suggesting that teams won’t be scared off if a player admits past use. Bennett’s career is a footnote in baseball history and so will his admission be. Vina, on the other hand, could find himself unemployed.
Pettitte’s admission is more troubling because of his star status and the fact that Pettitte is a devout Christian who is very open about his faith. By using his All-Star status to promote his faith, Pettitte’s beliefs have come into question. He also plays in New York, where fans can be merciful once the tide turns. Pettitte signed a one-year, $16 million contract a day before the Mitchell Report was released and if he performs poorly next year, he will hear it from fans.
For Roberts, his admission compounds the problems for the Orioles organization. One current player, Jay Gibbons, tested positive for HGH use last year and will serve a 15-game suspension at the start of next season. Meanwhile, a number of former Orioles were named in the report and the team itself issued a rather backhanded statement about the Mitchell Report late Saturday night, during a “graveyard” period for the media. Roberts is considered the face of a struggling franchise and one of the game’s good guys, but his admission and previous denials make him look a liar and a cheat and have heaped more bad press on his team. Worse, there were current and former players, as well as columnists, defending Roberts and attacking the evidence against him.
Despite the negative effects of players’ admissions, the media and the public seems willing to accept anyone who will be honest. Some will forgive and forget, others will boo. The message, however, has been “come clean now or we won’t believe you later, if we even believe you now.” Some players will want to come clean to clear their conscience, others will simply deny use and hope people make their own judgments in their favor.
The Denial: The biggest name mentioned in the Mitchell Report is without a doubt Roger Clemens. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner is generally considered the greatest pitcher of the past fifty years, but his name was mentioned more than 80 times in the report. Clemens issued a statement on Tuesday through his agent, denying that he has ever used performance-enhancing drugs.
“I want to state clearly and without qualification: I did not take steroids, human growth hormone or any other banned substances at any time in my baseball career or, in fact, my entire life,” Clemens said in a statement. “Those substances represent a dangerous and destructive shortcut that no athlete should ever take.”
“I am disappointed that my 25 years in public life have apparently not earned me the benefit of the doubt, but I understand that Senator Mitchell’s report has raised many serious questions,” Clemens continued. “I plan to publicly answer all of those questions at the appropriate time in the appropriate way. I only ask that in the meantime people not rush to judgment.”
Unfortunate for Clemens, people have rushed to judgment. One big reason is that Pettitte’s admission corroborated statements made by McNamee, who was the source for virtually all of the information in the report about Clemens. More so, Clemens and Pettitte are close friends who work out together. Putting two and two together is not very difficult.
The fact that it took Clemens five days to issue a statement has many people questioning his honesty. If he never used HGH or steroids, why did he not immediately refute the Mitchell Report’s findings? they ask. One commentator, Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay, said the only way Clemens can clear his name is by filing a lawsuit against MLB for slander. Kay, who absolutely loves the Yankees and counts most players on the team as friends, said that in his book, Clemens needs to win in court for him to believe the pitcher.
Clemens’ denial has been greeted with skepticism, and the timing of it has raised more questions about his honesty. Clemens would have been better off issuing a statement immediately following the release of the report and either holding a press conference or agreeing to an interview with a national media outlet. By sitting on his hands, Clemens has made his own situation worse.
The Halo Effect: If anyone has scored PR win out of the Mitchell Report it is Frank Thomas, the designated hitter for the Toronto Blue Jays. Thomas was the only current player to meet voluntarily with investigators, and he has been an on-the-record proponent of stricter drug testing for well over a decade.
Thomas did not publicize the fact that he met with investigators, but the report noted he did so. In interviews since the report was released, Thomas said he had little information to offer other than insights from someone who has been in the league for eighteen years, but that he felt it was his obligation to speak with Mitchell.
“Why wouldn’t I talk to [Mitchell],” Thomas told The New York Times. “I didn’t do anything wrong and I’ve got nothing to hide.”
For Thomas, the release of the Mitchell Report has been a redemptive event. Considered the best hitter of the 1990s, Thomas’ achievements have been overshadowed by other players, many of whom have been accused of using steroids or HGH. When Thomas hit his 500th career home run this past season, the event was marked with indifference because fans no longer see the milestone as being important, mostly because so many sluggers are viewed as cheaters.
Over the past week, however, Thomas’ stock has risen in the eyes of fans and sportswriters, the latter group controlling the keys to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Thomas’ accomplishments (two-time Most Valuable Player, top 25 all-time in home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage, on base percentage and base on balls) are now considered even more remarkable because it’s assumed that many of his competitors were cheating and that he was clean.
Thomas narrowly lost the 2000 MVP award voting to Jason Giambi, an admitted steroid user. He’s eighteenth on the all-time career home run list, and one player ahead of him on the list has admitted using steroids; one player ahead of him was suspended for using steroids; and, two players ahead of him are strongly suspected of using steroids. Excluding Alex Rodriguez, who most fans believe has not used steroids or HGH, the only other players ahead of Thomas on the all-time home run list were retired well before the “Steroid Era” began.
By doing nothing other than what he thought was right, Thomas won an easy PR victory. In the process, he has boosted his image and secured his legacy.
The Silence: More than eighty current and former players were named in the Mitchell Report, but only a handful have either denied or admitted the accusations made against them. Some players will simply wait it out and deal with the boos next season. Others may eventually come clean or issue denials. Whatever each player chooses to do, there will be PR ramifications.
In most cases, silence is not the best avenue to take. In fact, if I was a player who was willing to admit my transgression, I would have done so immediately after Pettitte did. Pettitte is the second-biggest star behind Clemens to have his name in the report, and a mediocre player could have slipped his admission through the media cracks in the wake of Pettitte’s admission.
When the Mitchell Report was released, I was not surprised by the findings. I’m a lifelong baseball fan and the report confirmed some of my worst fears. As a PR practitioner, however, I was excited to see how the players named in the report would deal with the fallout. Thus far, those players named in the report are not doing a good spin job. And with each day that passes, winning the PR battle becomes more difficult.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.