The immense exposure and resulting public pressures faced by modern athletes is hardly a new phenomenon… at least not totally new. But with the recent issues surrounding Cam Newton and his admittedly sexist statements, one can’t help but consider just how much the public reaction has accelerated in the last few years. Looking at some previous examples of publicity nightmares resulting from athlete exposure, it’s incredible to see just how differently each one played out. What becomes clear is that social media gaffs tend to play out better for some players than others. But they all have one thing in common: Fans totally eat them up.

Rashard Mendenhall – The Unlikely Comeback Kid

CBS Pittsburgh
Mendenhall is a fascinating early case study when observing athletes and their use of social media. Coming off a season that saw him run for 13 touchdowns and over 1,200 yards with the Pittsburgh Steelers, things quickly started going downhill for Mendenhall. In 2011, following the death of Osama Bin Laden, Mendenhall took to Twitter, making some incredibly questionable and polarizing statements about America’s reaction to it. The response was swift and angry, with many taking the comments as anti-American. The Steelers quickly distanced themselves from the comments and their player, and endorsements soon followed. Within two years, at the young age of 26, Mendenhall walked away from the game, never again reaching the heights he saw in 2010. Mendenhall apologized days after sending the initial tweets, but only to the extent that he might have “unintentionally” hurt someone or if his words were “misinterpreted.” Needless to say, it did little to reverse the negative perception surrounding him.

Mendenhall is a great example of a player that screwed up and just didn’t get it quite right in the immediate time following the incident. In fact, many would probably think he faded into relative obscurity following this highly publicized incident. But he wouldn’t be the unlikely comeback kid if he had. Mendenhall has been able to pull his life together in the last couple of years. He is the Executive Story Editor for HBO’s hit show Ballers, contributing his personal life stories and lending credibility to storylines. Mendenhall may have botched the cleanup on his public relations nightmare, but you got to give him credit for coming back so strong.

Men’s Journal

Michael Phelps– Pot-O-Gold

Michael Phelps is great example of how sheer talent and ability will outweigh just about any negative PR… another shining example of how an athlete in today’s world never truly has any privacy. Back in 2009, the infamous picture of Phelps and the bong went viral and his image took a beating. He even saw some sponsors, including Kellogg, walk away from their endorsements. Further, Phelps was dealing with personal issues himself at the time and this event only accelerated his downward spiral. Some thought his career might be over. However,

Phelps was eventually able to overcome his demons, returning to the pool and public eye, ultimately walking away as the most decorated Olympian in history. It appears that the only thing people like seeing more than a public figure getting shamed is a comeback story.

To Phelps’ credit, he owned up to everything once the image went viral. He profusely apologized to his fans, and then admitted that he had work to do to rid himself of his personal issues. The majority of Phelps’ sponsors stood by his side and were rewarded handsomely for their loyalty. Phelps came back a new man, not running away from his past, but harnessing those experiences to build his future.

Phelps is a great example of how the immense size of one’s celebrity could nullify the impact of a negative incident. Granted, it was not the most heinous of acts, particularly compared to Mendenhall whose patriotism was questioned. Yet, Phelps was able to overcome this negative experience, restore his image, and will be remembered as the most decorated Olympian ever.  The fact that he did it all high might actually make it more impressive. 

Huffington Post

Tiger Woods – The Unlikely Loser

Woods is the ultimate and most surprising example of an incredibly talented athlete unable to overcome the pressures of extreme negative publicity.

Most recall the moment they heard that one of the most respected athletes in America had been in altercation with his wife following revelations of his infidelity. The sports world was shocked. As more stories came out, Woods was criticized heavily for his response and faded from the golf world for a period. Some of his biggest sponsors were quick to distance themselves from him. AT&T, Accenture, and Gillette all ended their partnerships with Woods and EA Sports discontinued the Tiger Woods PGA Tour game. Nike notably stuck by him,

even producing a tear-jerking commercial featuring Woods’ father’s voice as part of Wood’s apology tour. Unfortunately, though Woods would eventually return to the game, it was in a way no one thought possible.

Since returning golf, Woods has never been anywhere near the type player he was prior to the incident. While some of his drop in play can be attributed to injury, its hard to understand how a man simply loses what appeared to be the innate and well developed talent of his generation. While it would nice if every great could come back as strong as Phelps, Woods is an unfortunate example of how these stories play out all too often. This was just someone that no one saw coming.


Cam Newton – The New Normal?

And last, but certainly not least, we have Cam Newton. As a refresher, Newton made sexist comments to a female reporter questioning her knowledge of the game based on her gender. While the backlash in these situations is always pretty quick, the speed with which it came at Newton feels almost unprecedented.

While athletes in the past have criticized the 24-hour news cycle, Newton would have liked to have that much time to rectify the situation. Only a couple of hours after the remarks went viral, Dannon announced they were ending their professional relationship with Cam. He immediately became public enemy number one. In his public remarks following the incident, Cam released a video of himself on Twitter, profusely and sincerely apologizing for his actions. And while the public certainly can acknowledge and accept his apology, his original words remain in the world, and cannot be forgotten. Newton can consider himself lucky. For someone who earns approximately ten million dollars a year in off-field endorsements, things could have ended up much worse and he could have lost other major endorsement deals.

What’s notable about Newton’s particular situation is that by all accounts, when Newton ultimately did apologize, it was very well received and sincere (Having confirmed with my wife that this was the case, I feel confident in saying so). Newton didn’t claim to mean something different, blame an illness or somehow argue that he was hacked. Instead, he owned his actions, stating that they were wrong and that he expects more from himself, as should his fans. He notably encouraged those who look up to him not to strive to be like him, but to strive to be better. Once the mistake was made, Cam couldn’t take it back. That considered, his ultimate apology was one of the better outcomes you could hope for. Despite all of this, Newton finds himself out of a very lucrative endorsement contract. If this is the new normal when it comes to athlete exposure and expectations, they should be on higher alert as to what they say and post than ever before.


Athletes today are surely in uncharted territory. They must be aware of their surroundings 24/7, and always keep an eye out for that smartphone waiting to record their every move. Many wonder if legends like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle would have survived in today’s game. Both were known just as much for their skill on the field as their off-the-field, late-night prowess. Back in the day, those players were often given latitude by the press, and stories detailing their questionable actions were buried and forgotten. With the rise of smartphones and Twitter, anyone on the street can catch you at your worst and share it with the world in a matter of seconds. Further, it looks like even the sincerest apology is not always enough to save your brand. Most notably, only one day after breaking ties with Cam Newton, Dannon was ready with their next golden boy, signing Dak Prescott to an even more lucrative deal. With the next big thing always ready and waiting in the wings, athletes need to be more careful than ever.



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One comment

  1. Interesting article. I noticed all of your examples are more recent ones, and take place in the age of social media, which makes sense. I wonder how these athletes would have reacted in the absence of social media, and what the fallout would have been otherwise. But that’s for another article I guess…

    Liked by 1 person

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