Whether we like it or not, our children look up to professional athletes as heroes and role models. Whether they mimic Chipper Jones during Little League games or beg to stay up late to watch Tony Gonzalez on "Monday Night Football, " children idolize their favorite sports heroes. Athletes' choices become their image, and their image becomes their brand.
Image is paramount for professional athletes. Image can significantly impact contract negotiations, media relationships and coverage, endorsements and post-career opportunities.
Think about the major sports icons of our time. Did they command respect from their teammates, coaches, fans and community? Did they honor their sport with dignity? Did they bring notoriety to their team, university, city?
Fair or not, sports stars in our culture are held to higher standards. And, right or wrong, many of them aren't ready. Some sports agents understand character and image are important. They focus on preserving and improving clients' images. Others work to sign clients who are anchored with a strong foundation of high character. One general manager once said, "A 19-year-old with two million [dollars] isn't necessarily a man."
This is so true. Teams and leagues can step in and help in that regard. But, it does not always work out as planned.
When Miami Heat star Le-Bron James made a calculated decision to "take my talents to South Beach, " it seemed the whole world turned on him overnight. Fans and media criticized his out-sized ego and lack of humility.
It was much worse for stars such as Tiger Woods and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose personal indiscretions prompted media frenzies. The consequences for both athletes were real with sponsors leaving them.
And then there are athletes like former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick or former Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, whose poor judgment led to prison time.
Sometimes, an agent can help prevent the destruction of an athlete's image during a "crisis" by imposing some external discipline. To that end, my motto to my clients has always been "tell the truth, tell it fast and tell it yourself."
Woods failed at every turn. Instead of telling the truth, he lied --- to law enforcement, to advisers, to the media and ultimately, to his fans. Lying never works, period.
When he finally told the truth, he waited. And waited. It took days to issue an online apology crafted by a public relations team.
By using agents to craft his message and refusing to go before the public, Woods ignored the third principle of my motto. It took three months for Woods to approach the media and the public to take questions and tell the truth, in person.
Sometimes an agent will pass on athletes with "trouble potential" all together. If an agency sees character problems in a young but promising athlete, they may work with the athlete and his or her support network to alleviate those concerns. If the athlete is young, the agent might see if maturity will set in. If he is prone to outbursts, the agent might conduct media training. If finances present a big risk, the agent may work with a financial adviser or trusted family member to monitor and control the athlete's paychecks. Or the agent might just decide the player isn't better than the problems they present.
On the flip side, a lot of athletes seize the opportunity to build a better image. Many understand the uniqueness of their platform and want to maximize career opportunities. The single best way for an athlete to maximize those opportunities is to execute on the field and make responsible choices off the field. That will lead to a strong personal brand.
Agents and athletes work together to embrace philanthropic associations and community service organizations that matter to the athlete. Agents and athletes build relationships with members of the media. When the athlete has good news to share, those relationships will help to maximize the reach of that message. If something negative happens, the media will look to the athlete for direct, honest answers.
Relationships provide an important buffer for athletes. At the end of the day, it's human nature to cheer the winners who are humble and "get it."
There are reasons why athletes like former Braves pitcher John Smoltz, Ravens linebacker Michael Oher, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Twins catcher Joe Mauer and NBA star Grant Hill have household names. Each built a strong brand and reputation by taking advantage of their career, philanthropy and sponsorship opportunities.