Heisman debacle = PR opportunity

AP photo

On Tuesday, Reggie Bush became the first player to ever forfeit the Heisman Trophy in its 75-year existence.

What happened:

The Heisman Trophy, given to an outstanding college football athlete each year, was awarded to Bush in 2005 while he was a running back for the USC Trojans. It was determined recently by the NCAA that Bush had violated the terms of collegiate football by accepting lavish gifts from potential agents while on the team. Because of this, Bush was ruled ineligible for the Trophy.

The NCAA penalized USC for lack of institutional control and had them give up their victories in the ‘05 season in which Bush had played, as well as a decrease in football scholarships and a two-year bowl ban.

While the Heisman Trust was still considering what to do about Bush, Bush himself released a statement that he was forfeiting the award. (For more details, check the article on ESPN about the situation.)

So, now that you’re caught up, what does this have to do with PR?

This situation is a sticky one and can definitely affect reputations. This is where PR has the opportunity to find solutions.

While Bush’s reputation hasn’t taken too horrible of a hit due to his actual talent and success as a member of Super Bowl champs New Orleans Saints, there is still the increased media spotlight and the fact that he is now in the history books as the first to return the Trophy. Releasing an official forfeit statement where he is humble and apologetic was definitely a great PR tactic, reminding people of his character and human frailty. It was also a wise PR move for Bush to wait to discuss the incident until he was prepared to do so.

In the statement, Bush said he wanted to start an educational program with the Heisman trustees for student-athletes. I personally think that part was a little unnecessary and that he would have been fine with solely apologizing. However, I think he should have formally apologized to the current USC football team who is now unable to compete. For the future, the best thing for Bush to do is to focus on football and his current team. By showing his talent on the field, people will get over this incident quickly. Many already are.

On the other hand, USC is the one taking the hit. This isn’t the first player to have this problem while on the Trojans team; basketball player O.J. Mayo also received gifts from agents during his stay at USC.

With the loss of 30 football scholarships over the next three years and the inability to compete in any bowls during the 2010-2011 seasons, USC should take this time to rebuild the image of its sports program by promising to obey the NCAA’s rules. However, I don’t think it is necessary for them to pretend as though Bush was never a Trojan. USC filed for an appeal of some of the sanctions, but it doesn’t appear likely that they will win. Moving forward is really their only option now and showing respect to the NCAA by learning from this incident.

Do you agree with the PR decisions made? If not, what should they have done differently?

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6 Responses to Heisman debacle = PR opportunity

  1. slarsonm says:

    I definitely agree with Reggie Bush’s decision to return the Heisman. It was inevitable that he would lose it anyway, so giving it back with a formal apology alleviates some of the negative feelings towards Bush.

    As far as USC is concerned, Reggie Bush graduated five years ago. A few years later, allegations surfaced about other players accepting gifts. This is a problem for the organization if multiple players are accused of accepting gifts. They should not worry about the players that have been exposed, but the players they have now.

    The rules are clear. Athletes know when they are doing something wrong. It is the responsibility for the organization to keep their players in line and enforce the rules. I agree that USC should publicly admit there were a few bad apples in the organization and promise to enforce a stricter policy for the players.

    One huge piece of the PR puzzle that you haven’t mentioned is the Heisman Trophy Trust and their decision not to award the trophy to someone else. Here’s an article from ESPN describing the situation: http://sports.espn.go.com/los-angeles/ncf/news/story?id=5576729.

    The Trust decided to leave the spot vacated, which I think was the right decision. (Apparently 64 percent of those who answered the ESPN poll agreed.) They have set a precedent for recipients of the coveted award.

    According to the Heisman Trust’s mission statement, “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” (http://www.heisman.com/trust/mission_statement.php#) The key word in that statement is “integrity.”

    By taking the award back and not re-awarding the trophy, they have raised the bar for recipients, as well as themselves. People now look at the Trust as recognizing true success and integrity in athletes, not looking the other way when players break the rules.

    If anyone comes out of this fiasco looking good, I think it’s the Heisman Trust. Hopefully, players learn that to be a champion, it takes more than just being a good athlete.

  2. srmccab1 says:

    I agree with your analysis that this incident could be most damaging to USC. USC obviously knows the NCAA rules and by ignoring them has disqualified themselves from two postseasons. However, I don’t think Reggie Bush’s image is completely off the hook.

    A four-year investigation seems like it’d be pretty extensive so I find it hard to believe that he didn’t have some sense that they would find out that he accepted the San Diego home. Thus, I think it was a poor move, PR wise, to deny any wrongdoing from the get go. Did we not learn anything from the crises of Bill Clinton and BP?

    As you said, a simple apology can go far. But instead, Bush decided to deny any wrongdoing. Even once all the facts came out, he still took quite a while to apologize and decide to return the Heisman (which I thought was a good move from a public relations stance). Instead, all he did in delaying his apology was to draw out the entire situation.

    This whole thing makes me think of Marion Jones, the Olympic runner who was stripped of five Olympic medals. That scandal still follows her around today. I think it will be interesting to see how long his name is immediately associated with this incident.

  3. kzinn says:

    I also agree with your reaction on this debacle from a PR perspective. Bush made a good move in forfeiting the trophy because it paints an honest picture of him, recognizing his wrongs and holding himself accountable. The idea of the education program is a little over-the-top, in my opinion. It just seems like an excuse for a program that is not needed.

    What should have changed, in my opinion, was Bush’s sense of urgency to respond to the situation. I understand the value of waiting to speak until proper consideration beforehand, however, the situation could have been handled sooner. But seemingly the delay in responding did not harm him because he’s received favorable reaction upon announcing his decision.

    USC is indeed the one suffering most. As young collegiate athletes in their prime, they are now denied the opportunities to excel in ways that Bush and his teammates were able to. It does, however, raise the theory of “there’s no I in team.” Athletes are part of a team and form a strong bond, whether current or alumni, and thus I believe it is in the best interest of the current team to promote a positive message in supporting Bush’s decision.

    The responsibility now falls on the administration and coaching staff — along with their PR professionals — to makeover the image of their team from a behind-the-scenes perspective. An apology on their end might not hurt either.

  4. jjmock says:

    I definitely agree that the situation is way more damaging to USC. Reggie Bush decided to be proactive and forfeit his trophy before it was stripped from him. He did this so he could be apologetic and humble where if it was stripped, he would seem to be forced to be humble. I think it was a good move for him, but does nothing for USC. The colleges will always suffer with the negative image left by athletes who are just thinking of themselves. USC should definitely try to launch a campaign promoting all of their successful athletes who are following the rules and succeeding. I think this will turn public opinion in their favor.

  5. mbgiles says:

    I disagree that Bush’s statement about starting an educational fund with the trustees isn’t necessary. Although it’s not Bush’s fault that USC influenced him, he is still a major player in the game and needs to protect his image. From a PR standpoint, I think he should be doing all that he can to promote himself while helping out his alma mater. On the other hand, I agree that Reggie’s association with this debacle will blow over and be forgotten by fans. The main concern is USC, whose sports team and rep are going to greatly suffer because of this. However, USC is one of California’s premier schools and enjoys a huge, almost obsessive, following. I think that there is always going to be something negative associated with a university as large and popular as USC, granted not always of this caliber, but it will blow over and eventually be just another paragraph in the history books.

  6. shotchk1 says:

    I thought it was good PR. Yes, it took them a moment to respond, which was smart in order to decide a game plan. Coming forward with a wholehearted apology was a good strategy. He was young when he did it, and he has made himself a career since then. I think it probably helped that he is a Saints player–there’s a lot of love for them right now.
    I do agree he should have apologized to USC because his actions haven’t really hurt him, but they did hurt the school and its players.

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