Major League Baseball should be harvesting stellar publicity now, with the playoffs in full swing and the World Series on the horizon. Rather it finds itself facing what could be its greatest public relations nightmare – a lawsuit by New Yankee, Alex Rodriguez against Major League Baseball and Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. In the lawsuit, Rodriguez claims that Selig and Major League Baseball pursued him with “vigilante justice” as part of a “witch hunt” designed to smear his character. The lawsuit also lists allegations —that Major League Baseball investigators engaged in unethical and even criminal behavior during the year-long investigation into Rodriguez and Biogenesis, the South Florida anti-aging clinic that allegedly supplied Rodriguez with banned drugs; and that Major League Baseball is paying Anthony Bosch, A-Rod’s former nutrition adviser, $5 million to testify against Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is appealing Major League Baseball’s 211 game suspension handed down to him for violating its drug policy. Rodriguez has not denied the allegations and his lawsuit doesn’t either. It is generally believed that Rodriguez will lose his appeal. So his position seems to be to take baseball and Selig down with him.
Major League Baseball in its initial response didn’t do a good job in crisis communications. Their statement claimed that the lawsuit is a clear violation of the confidentiality provisions of the Major League Baseball drug program. Not a ringing denial. It also allows Rodriguez at least in the court of public opinion to shift the public focus from him and doping to Selig’s and baseball’s actions against him and allow him to look like the victim.
Major League Baseball has already seen its reputation suffer over the years with the steroid scandal that it mishandled and other issues. Now it faces the accusation they and the Commissioner singled out and did anything they could to nail Rodriguez. While it won’t save him from suspension, the lawsuit could destroy both Selig’s and Major League Baseball’s reputation and standing with the sports fans. While the public doesn’t like their sports stars to be liars (see Lance Armstrong) or using illegal enhancing drugs (see Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire), they also don’t like investigators acting like rogue cops and appearing to carry out a vendetta regardless of the legalities to get someone.
What then should Major League Baseball do?
- If there is no merit to Rodriguez’s allegations:
Selig needs to issue a strong and emphatic denial to all the allegations and remind people that the real issue isn’t Rodriguez’s reckless charges but his violation of Major League Baseball’s drug policies and then ignore Rodriguez and his lawsuit and keep the focus on the playoffs, World Series, and positive aspects of baseball.
- If there is merit to the allegations:
- Selig needs to resign once. He has already announced that he is stepping aside after the 2014 season. Far better for baseball that he resign at once rather than allow this lawsuit cloud everything else including the 2014 season.
- Bring in a special investigator to investigate all of the allegations and fire anyone who is found to have acted unethically or criminally.
- If any payments were made to Anthony Bosch admit it and explain why.
- Replace Selig with a high profile personality who has creditability with the public, even if not a great understanding of baseball. Condoleezza Rice, Mitt Romney, Bill Bradley, or Rudy Giuliani all come to mind. Remember the first Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis wasn’t brought on board for his knowledge of the game but rather his reputation and judicial mindset.
- Reaffirm the anti-drug policy and uphold Rodriguez’s suspension if warranted.
The lawsuit filed by Alex Rodriguez has the potential to take many with him. It could shake fans’ faith in the sport like the Black Sox scandal did that led to the appointment of the first Baseball Commissioner. That is why it is imperative that Major League Baseball do crisis communications 101, if not the damage done to the sport could take not years but decades to repair.
David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group, an Atlanta-based public relations agency, that specializes in branding, crisis communications, media placements. Additional information on him and Strategic Vision PR Group may be obtained at https://www.strategicvisionpr.com.