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. 3/5 |

III. Case Study Analysis of High-Profile College Athletes

Overview of Terrelle Pryor and “Tattoo Gate”

Terrelle Pryor’s impressive athletic resume at Jeannette High School in Pennsylvania gave him a number of options on where to continue playing in college, a decision which Sports Illustrated deemed “the most anticipated signing day announcement in history.”20 Pryor chose to attend Ohio State University, where he quickly became a household name. He was voted as the Big Ten’s freshman of the year, and later led Ohio State to a victory in the storied Rose Bowl in 2010, a game in which he was also voted MVP.21 Despite all of his success, Pryor left Ohio State on sour terms following a high-profile scandal that is aptly now referred to as “Tattoo Gate.”

In December of 2010, reports began to surface of an NCAA investigation regarding several infractions by Ohio State football players, including receiving improper benefits.22 After continuous reports and both internal and external investigations of the accusations, the University opted to self-report the infractions to the NCAA. Pryor, along with five teammates, admitted to selling game memorabilia, such as their conference championship rings, in exchange for cash, as well as to receiving improper benefits from a local tattoo parlor in the form of numerous free and discounted tattoos.23 Given the increasing occurrence of improper benefit scandals at the time, Pryor’s national fame, and Ohio State’s storied football history, “tattoo gate” received serious media scrutiny. Having been thrust into a national spotlight, Pryor and the University scrambled to respond to the scandal effectively.

Analysis of “Tattoo Gate” Crisis Response24 25 26 27

On June 14th, 2011, Terrelle Pryor held a press conference to address his scandal at Ohio State and his future as a football player. The press conference marked Pryor’s first public statement following the extremely high-profile scandal, his departure from the program and university, and the firing of the program’s longtime head coach, Jim Tressel. Since he was no longer enrolled at Ohio State, Pryor opted to hire one of the NFL’s most well-known agents, Drew Rosenhaus, before addressing the scandal and entering the NFL supplemental draft. Both Pryor and Rosenhaus spoke during the press conference and did not allow questions to be asked. Their statements will be analyzed below using Benoit’s theory of image restoration.28

Despite being the focal point of the NCAA’s investigation and the media’s coverage, Pryor spoke for a mere 97 seconds. An analysis of his statement, in conjunction with Rosenhaus,’ shows a clear image restoration strategy. Pryor utilized two of Benoit’s methods as the foundation for his statement: mortification and corrective action.

Pryor began his statement by apologizing for his actions, and, in effect, acknowledging his wrongdoing. He apologized directly to the various parties attached to his career at Ohio State, including former head coach Jim Tressel:




“In terms of Ohio State, I’d like to say sorry to the coaching staff, say sorry to my teammates, say sorry to all of Buckeye Nation and all the Buckeye fans across the country. I never meant to hurt anyone directly or indirectly with my conduct off the field and I am truly sorry.”

“In terms of coach Jim Tressel, a special shoutout. I’m sorry for what all went down and I apologize with all my heart. I love you just like a father. You taught me a lot and I apologize for putting you in a situation and taking you out of a job and place that you loved to be. I regret the fact that you’re not there any more and I regret the fact that I’m not there any more.”

Pryor showcases Benoit’s method of mortification very cleanly with these quotes as he acknowledges his actions, apologizes for them, and emphasizes his regret regarding the actions and the damage they caused. In stating that he loved Tressel “like a father,” Pryor adds further weight to his apology and the potential for emotional resonance with his audience. This use of mortification allowed Pryor to proceed logically to his next image restoration method, corrective action.

Before addressing his future with football, Pryor added a short but important statement regarding his early departure from the university: “I have nine more credits left at The Ohio State University, and I’d like to come back and graduate some time, finish my degree, and graduate a Buckeye.” This statement marks the shift in Pryor’s strategies from mortification to corrective action. His wish to someday return to school implies a level of corrective action in that he is demonstrating a desire to better himself and to make amends. By specifically expressing a desire to “graduate a Buckeye,” Pryor aims to demonstrate loyalty to the university and eventually win back the favor of the Ohio State fan base.

Following his apologies and statement regarding his degree, Pryor shifted his statement toward the future. The rest of his statement, albeit very brief, centered around his entering the NFL supplemental draft and his desire to be a better person both on and off the field:



Corrective Action

“In terms of my future, I am entering the supplemental draft and am working hard every single day on the field and off the field to be a better quarterback. One of my goals is to be the best person I can possibly be off the field and to be the best role model I can be off the field.”

Here, Pryor’s emphasis on personal betterment highlights his use of corrective action. He stresses that he is working hard not only to be a better quarterback, but a better person as a whole. This assures his audience that he is doing his best to move past his wrongdoings and grow from them, rather than evade responsibility and continue to make poor decisions. By referencing his work ethic and goals, he implies that there is a process for change in mind; he is actively working to move past his transgressions. His specific use of the term “role model” is especially indicative of corrective action, as he implies that his future actions will be positive ones far removed from his past.

After 97 seconds, Pryor finished his statement unceremoniously and allowed his agent to take the reins. Rosenhaus spoke for several minutes and employed a similar strategy to Pryor. His statement utilized a combination of mortification and corrective action methods on behalf of his client. In addition, a large portion of his statement was spent bolstering Pryor as a football player and human being. Selections from Rosenhaus’ statement was analyzed below.

Rosenhaus began his statement by referring to Pryor as an “outstanding young man” and acknowledging his actions at Ohio State. Much like Pryor, he utilized mortification early and openly as a bridge to other methods of image restoration:




“He is a young man here today who is expressing tremendous remorse. He’s very sad about what has happened to his college career and Ohio State. I can tell you that he is extremely, he’s responsible for the mistakes he’s made. He’s owned up to them. There are no excuses here guys, no excuses at all.”

Rosenhaus’ use of mortification is made very clear here. He emphasizes his client’s regret and responsibility for the events that took place. By noting that there are no excuses, he assures the audience that Pryor fully acknowledges the situation and is taking responsibility for his actions. By noting that Pryor has “owned up” to his actions, he also places him in a positive, responsible light. By being straightforward about Pryor’s actions and remorse, Rosenhaus was then able to transition to his bolstering of Pryor, stating that “the past is now the past for him, and we have to move ahead. There is no point in him looking back except for him to become the best person he can be and I believe in him.” This quote demonstrates a clear transition away from the scandal for Rosenhaus and gears the conversation towards the future, where, as both statements emphasize, Pryor will work to change his ways and become a better person.

Following his use of mortification on behalf of Pryor, Rosenhaus shifted heavily to bolstering. He spoke very highly of Pryor in a number of different respects, ranging from his football prowess to his high character. Using his reputation and experience as credibility, Rosenhaus’ bolstering aims to divert attention from Pryor’s transgressions at Ohio State and highlight positive qualities about his client. Rosenhaus also listed off a series of Pryor’s football accolades during his career at Ohio State, compared him to current successful NFL quarterback Cam Newton, and referred to him as “one of the most gifted quarterbacks that this league has seen.” The table below details Rosenhaus’ bolstering of his client:




“I am a firm believer after 25 years of experience that Terrelle Pryor will be a great, not a good quarterback, a great quarterback in the National Football League. That he’s going to be a star.”

“He has a good heart. I’ve represented a lot of players in the NFL. This young man has character.”

These quotes provide a strong example of Rosenhaus’ bolstering of Pryor. These statements aim to generate positive sentiments from the audience and to combat negative ones generated by the scandal.

He further emphasized Pryor’s high character by utilizing Jim Tressel, the man who lost his job due to Pryor’s actions. Rosenhaus stated that he would not have taken Terrelle as a client had he not received a glowing endorsement from Tressel. He stated that “[Tressel] talked about him like you would talk about a son.” Tressel was the most affected individual by the scandal, so Rosenhaus used his endorsement and positive relationship with Pryor as a major testament to his client’s high character. Rosenhaus continued to heap a variety of praises on his client throughout his statement. His final statements were aimed towards the future, where Rosenhaus assured that his client would be a different, more mature individual by utilizing corrective action:



Corrective Action

“He won’t make the same mistakes. He loves the game of football. He is going to learn from his mistakes and be a better person from it.”

“I hope that the people at Ohio State will embrace him in the future, will forgive him, and will give him an opportunity to be a Buckeye

for life. He is going to make it up to those fans.”

Corrective Action/ Defeasibility

“He’s a young man. We all make mistakes. Everybody in this audience has made mistakes at his age. He’ll learn from them, and he won’t make the same ones twice.”

Rosenhaus’ use of corrective action is very clear-cut with these quotes. He assures the audience that the actions at the root of “Tattoo Gate” would not be repeated because his client will learn from them and grow as an individual in the process. This coincides seamlessly with Benoit’s definition of corrective action, as assurances of change would help to soften negative sentiments generated from a public scandal. The third quote also demonstrates a subtle use of the defeasibility method, as Rosenhaus essentially attributes Pryor’s actions to being young and irresponsible. In this way, Pryor is portrayed to be a foolish, impressionable young man rather than a selfish celebrity.

Pryor and Rosenhaus exited the press conference following the conclusion of the latter’s statement. Their statements, when analyzed alongside one another, reveal a distinct use of image restoration strategies. In his short statement, Pryor relied primarily on the use of mortification and corrective action. Rosenhaus followed a similar strategy on behalf of Pryor, with the addition of consistent bolstering regarding his client’s football prowess and high moral character. The use of these strategies is logical in that they allowed for Pryor to apologize for his actions openly and honestly, put the past behind him, and look towards his future in the National Football League. The fallout from “Tattoo Gate” was already behind Pryor at the time of the press conference, so these statements do an effective job of gearing the conversation towards the future rather than dwelling on his past transgressions. NFL prospects often fall in drafts due to “character concerns,” but this press conference was clearly effective in highlighting Pryor’s remorse and high character. The Oakland Raiders selected Pryor in the third round of the NFL Supplemental Draft soon after the press conference. While Pryor and Rosenhaus were able to put “Tattoo gate” behind them, Pryor’s image restoration campaign did not end with his press conference.

Less than a year from his press conference, Pryor once again opted to speak out regarding his transgressions at Ohio State. His statements showcase a starkly different strategy than his press conference. Rather than relying on apologies and promises of change, Pryor flipped the tables by going on the offensive. He utilized the methods of transcendence and attacking his accusers in hopes of providing greater perspective on “Tattoo Gate.” The following quotes demonstrate Pryor’s use of these image restoration methods:



Transcendence, Attacking Accusers

“The reason why I did it was to pay my mother’s gas bill and some of her rent. I was telling the NCAA, ‘Please, anything that you can do. I gave my mother this so my sister wouldn’t be cold, so my mother wouldn’t be cold.’ They didn’t have any sympathy for me.”

“I don’t think I deserved [being punished] in that way, because of the reason I was doing it. I felt like I was doing God’s work in a way, and I was getting driven into the ground.”

These statements mark a distinct shift in Pryor’s stance on “Tattoo gate” from his initial press conference. They are textbook examples of Benoit’s transcendence method, as he attempts to justify his actions by asserting that he did them for the sake of his family’s well being. In this context, Pryor’s actions seem far less heinous or selfish when they are being used to pay for a heating bill rather than jewelry or a car for himself.

This use of transcendence meshes effectively with the strategies employed in his press conference, as he portrays himself to be a man of high moral character, going so far as to say that he was doing “God’s work.” To further distance himself from the negative sentiments associated with the scandal, Pryor passes some of the blame onto the NCAA. He portrays the NCAA as a callous, tyrannical organization that was punishing him for trying to be a supportive son and brother. By placing his actions in a far different context and passing blame to the NCAA, Pryor both highlighted his high moral character and distanced himself further from the scandal at Ohio State.

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