Pay for Play: Analysis of the Image Restoration Strategies of High Profile College Athletes

By Jacob H. Selzer
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 2/5 |

Image Restoration Strategies15

As scholars such as Miloch and Brazeal have clearly established with their work, athletes are particularly bound to their public image, making the implementation of effective crisis management strategies that much more imperative. For the purpose of this study, Benoit’s theory of image restoration will be employed to analyze the public statements made by Terrelle Pryor, A.J. Green, Cam Newton, and their respective universities.

Benoit’s theory was chosen largely in part because scholars have established the value of the theory as it relates to professional athletes. For example, Blair Bernstein found that Tiger Woods effectively utilized Benoit’s strategy of mortification to shift media scrutiny away from his sex scandal in 2009.16 In similar fashion, scholars Bruce and Tini found that Australian rugby players relied heavily on Benoit’s strategies during a highly publicized salary cap scandal.17 Thus, his theory is well suited to rhetorically analyze statements made by high-profile individuals, as this study aims to do.

Before proceeding into the outline of Benoit’s theory, it is important to recognize the distinction between the terms “crisis management” and “image restoration.” The two are often used interchangeably, but it is worth noting that image restoration falls under the umbrella of crisis management. That being said, the two terms will be used interchangeably within this paper, as image restoration efforts by the athletes and associated parties are its primary analytic focus.

Benoit breaks his image restoration strategies into five broad categories: denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. These categories are not mutually exclusive, and feature sub-strategies as well.

Denial

Benoit cites several authors in noting that the individual in question can either deny that the event in question ever occurred or deny the fact that they are guilty for it. The individual in question may also utilize evidence, alibis, or pertinent information to add further weight to their denial. Benoit also cites the passing of blame as an important, and often more effective, variant of denial.

Evading Responsibility

When denial of a certain act is not viable, which is often the case, evading responsibility for it becomes the next viable option. The first of four strategy variations is asserting that the accused party was provoked into their actions by another wrongful act. In this way, the accused individual justifies their own actions by passing blame onto another party and reducing their own responsibility.

Benoit defines the second variation, defeasibility, as “pleading lack of information about or control over important factors in the situation.” Thus, the accused attempts to reduce their responsibility by affirming that they did not have sufficient information or control to handle the situation effectively.

The third variation of evading responsibility relies on accidents and aims to pass the blame to their arbitrary nature. The fourth and final variation of this strategy does not particularly evade responsibility, but rather attributes it to good intentions.

Reducing Offensiveness

The third image restoration strategy employed by Benoit is reducing offensiveness. An accused individual may attempt to reduce “the degree of ill feeling experienced by the audience” through six methods: bolstering, minimization, differentiation, transcendence, attacking one’s accuser, and compensation.

Bolstering is one of the more common strategies used by individuals when responding to a crisis, as studies of superstar athletes such as Terrell Owens and Tiger Woods clearly show.18 The bolstering method attempts to increase positive sentiments towards the accused individual by highlighting past actions or positive attributes.

Minimization, on the other hand, attempts to convince the audience that the event in question is not as damaging or scandalous as it has been made out to be. Differentiation aims to achieve a similar effect with the audience by comparing it to similar, yet more notorious acts. Similarly, the fourth variation of this strategy, transcendence, attempts to reduce offensiveness by putting the event in question into a different context. While the individual may seem at fault in the initial frame of reference, this method aims to alleviate feelings of ill will by shifting the perception of the audience.

The fifth variation of reducing offensiveness aims to attack the accusers. The accused individual will allege that the accusers deserved what happened or that they were in some way responsible.

The sixth and final variation of this strategy is compensation. Compensation is very straightforward in that the accused individual offers some type of reimbursement to reduce sentiments of ill will.

Corrective Action

Corrective action, Benoit’s fourth image restoration strategy, involves the accused individual promising to fix the problem. This corrective action can take one of two forms: the individual can work to return things to the way they were before the incident in question, or the individual can make assurances of adjustments that will prevent any similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Mortification

Benoit’s fifth and final component of his image restoration theory is mortification. Mortification is the most direct of the aforementioned strategies, as the accused individual admits responsibility for the actions in question and seeks forgiveness for them. Benoit adds as a side note that mortification also couples effectively with corrective action.

Benoit cites these five strategies and their associated variants as options for individuals or parties seeking to mend their public reputation. Using this theory as a basis, this study will aim to see which image restoration strategies high-profile college athletes are employing and the implications associated with these actions.

The Prominence and Profitability of College Athletics19

In order to grasp the worth of this study and the void in established literature it aims to fill, it is necessary to outline the backdrop behind the scandals of high-profile college athletes. By understanding the world of college athletics and how it has evolved in recent time, the reader can better understand why scandals have become more commonplace and, to a greater extent, why the crisis management efforts of these athletes are so important.

The fame and profitability of modern college athletics are not mutually exclusive; the two are deeply interwoven in a reciprocal relationship. As profits increase from television deals, merchandising, and other lucrative sources, the scope of college athletics only broadens further. Thus, the finances behind the current college athletic landscape speak volumes regarding its national status.

The gargantuan profits behind modern college athletics can be seen along the entire spectrum. Take, for example, one of the focuses of this study: Cam Newton, former quarterback for Auburn University. During his improper benefits scandal (which will be outlined later in this section), Newton wore 15 corporate logos while on the field, ranging all the way from his helmet to his cleats, as part of the university’s $10.6

million deal with Under Armour. Auburn happens to be part of the illustrious Southeastern Conference, which became the first individual athletic league to crack the billion-dollar mark. Not far behind, the Big Ten athletic conference netted just over $900 million that same year. Members of these conferences, such as Penn State, Michigan, and Georgia, earn between $40 and $80 million in profits each year from athletics, after they pay their coaches multi-million dollar contracts. These figures stem from a number of sources, including ticket sales, concession sales, licensing fees, and, most of all, network television contracts. These profits are then distributed to a multitude of associated parties, including the NCAA organization, the University, the respective athletic organization, and television networks. Secondary parties, such as retail and tourism destinations, also benefit financially from the presence of successful college athletic programs.

In December of 2005, the Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Sub-Committee referred to college football as “big business.” While it is important to recognize where all of this money goes, it is just as important, if not more, to take note of where it does not go. While every party even vaguely associated with college athletic programs consistently earns high-grossing profits, the athletes themselves make nothing at all. This comes as a result of the NCAA’s stance and regulations regarding the sanctity of the “studentathlete” and “amateurism.” The payment, or lack thereof, of college athletes has become a philosophical, financial, and legal debate. Opinions aside, this polarizing situation helps shed light on why scandals have become increasingly present within the world of college athletics. As Branch puts it, “when you combine so much money with such high, almost tribal, stakes, corruption is likely to follow.”

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