Bad apologies can’t fix a baseball star’s image

"I think as more time passes A-Rod will go down as his own case study," says Max Utsler. "Partly because of wearing the Yankee uniform and being in the New York media spotlight. He had the most to gain, and he also had the most to lose." (Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr)

The start of a new baseball season brings hope for fans, but in the last decade it has brought talk of steroids, suspensions, and apologies from superstars for using banned substances.

A new study looks at how three of baseball’s biggest stars attempted to repair their images after accusations of steroid use, and analyzes the televised image-repair strategies of Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, and Barry Bonds.


While they used varying tactics, the athletes had essentially the same results, report the researchers, whose study appears in the Journal of Sports Media.

“Baseball had three prominent figures who tried to repair their images, and all three failed miserably,” says Max Utsler, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas. “I’m amazed that more athletes don’t have enough of a sense of history to realize there are some good techniques to use in image repair and some that aren’t.”

A-Rod apologizes

Alex Rodriguez, currently on suspension for his role in a performance-enhancing drug scandal, was accused of steroid use several years before his current troubles. Utsler and Epp analyzed a 2009 interview he did with ESPN’s Peter Gammons in which he attempted to repair his image.

He used three primary strategies: bolstering, mortification, and blame-shifting. He briefly used defeasibility in attacking his accuser. In an athlete’s case, bolstering essentially attempts to remind people of their positive attributes while not explicitly denying accusations. Rodriguez reminded Gammons of his natural talent before moving on to the use of mortification, or admitting wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness.

However, in Rodriguez’s case he claimed he was young and naïve when he took steroids, indicating he wasn’t truly accepting responsibility for his actions, Utsler says. Later in his interview he accused Sports Illustrated reporters of invading his privacy and attempting to sully his name by embellishing reports of his performance enhancing drug use.

A ‘dubious claim’

Mark McGwire attempted his image repair in an interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network. Utsler and former journalism master’s student and study co-author Susie Epp point out that he also used the primary strategies of bolstering, mortification, and blame shifting.

McGwire frequently reminded Costas of his natural talent and great baseball mind, discussing the many home runs he hit from Little League through college and repeatedly referred to “the man upstairs” for giving him the talent to hit home runs.

He admitted to use of steroids but insisted he was using them to recover from injuries and that they didn’t improve his strength or baseball ability, a dubious claim at best, Utsler says.

Barry Bonds’ denial

Barry Bonds was a unique case in that he fervently denied any steroid use and repeatedly attacked his accusers, belittling media members and claiming they were inventing stories of his steroid use without factual basis. He denied use in press conferences and even before a federal grand jury.

When asked if he felt a need to apologize, Bonds apologized for having to answer such questions repeatedly. Utsler says Bonds’ continued use of denial is the least likely of the three players’ strategies to work or even be believable. Where children often learn that denial of wrongdoing at a young age will only lead to more trouble, this rarely seems to be the case with athletes such as Bonds.

“We’ve seen that lesson repeated so many times in so many ways,” Utsler says. “It’s a lesson that keeps being repeated but continues to be ignored. The media keep teaching it, yet superstars continue to ignore it.”

While Bonds, Rodriguez, and McGwire’s initial attempts at image repair all failed, they have taken various paths since in getting back in the good graces of baseball fans and the establishment.

McGwire has been somewhat accepted again as a hitting coach, first for the St. Louis Cardinals and now for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bonds retired in 2007 after a knee injury, continuing to deny any wrongdoing while retreating from the public spotlight. Rodriguez continued to play for the New York Yankees and was later dealt a lengthy suspension, leading him to sue Major League Baseball. He recently dropped the suit and is serving the suspension.

It helps to win

The lesson the three athletes offer for both fellow competitors and those interested in communications studies is that denial and blame shifting almost never work in the field of apologia.

Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers provided a recent example of eventually learning that lesson. When originally charged with performance-enhancing drug use, he vehemently denied any wrongdoing, blaming testing officials. He eventually accepted his fate and took part in apologies to fans and the game, led by his team, while serving a suspension and getting back in the good graces of baseball.

Utsler and Epp argue that contributing to a winning team makes it much easier for athletes to gain forgiveness. However, that might not even be enough in the case of Rodriguez, who continues in his image repair saga.

“I think as more time passes A-Rod will go down as his own case study,” Utsler says. “Partly because of wearing the Yankee uniform and being in the New York media spotlight. He had the most to gain, and he also had the most to lose.”

Source: University of Kansas