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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research

Sports/Entertainment Image Repair

Sports is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, accounting for $435 billion in the United States alone (Plunkett Research, 2012). The entertainment industry, including film and television, adds billions more. People spend substantial time and money on sports and entertainment. Athletes and other celebrities encounter threats to image as do other people—and not surprisingly we find image repair in this arena. This chapter investigates image repair in sports and entertainment.

Image repair from celebrities is different than image repair from corporations and politicians, as discussed in earlier chapters (Benoit, 1997). Hugh Grant faced reports of his wrongdoing (patronizing a prostitute), but in contrast to politicians, it was unlikely that other actors would attack him. Celebrities can be important role models, but they do not affect the lives of others the way politicians and corporations do. Corporations can sacrifice employees, firing them in an attempt to cleanse their image; actors do not have this option. This chapter will review some of the research in this area and then examine two new case studies: the New Orleans Saints' bounty program and Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Kruse (1981) argues that team sport is “a phenomenon of cultural import” (p. 270) in an early investigation of image repair in sports. She explained that athletes who attempt to repair their images must understand the “ethic of team sport,” which “holds that the team is greater than any of its individual members” (p. 273). She concludes,

In defending their characters, sport figures use the same strategies other apologists employ. However, it is incumbent upon those who have violated the sport ethic to assure fans that equilibrium has been restored, and a stable relationship exists between the team and the fates. Consequently, sport apologists assert their positive attitudes toward the game. For this reason, too, they express sorrow for their behaviors. (p. 283)

Since then, several studies have investigated image repair from sports and other celebrities.

Nelson (1984) examined defenses by other sports figures after revelations that tennis star Billie Jean King had engaged in an affair with her former secretary; she used bolstering (stressing her marriage and family life, showing honesty) and differentiation (she had an affair with another woman but she did not embrace a homosexual lifestyle). Others employed strategies not used by King in her defense. King's peers in the sport of tennis used a different approach to bolstering, stressing the good she had done (e.g., advancing the cause of women) and arguing that this affair was a private choice. The media collaborated in this defense, covering King's remarks and generally being supportive.

American figure skater Tonya Harding was accused of involvement in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994). Harding could not compete in the U.S. Championships but did skate in Lillihammer. Harding participated in an interview on Eye to Eye with Connie Chung in which her main strategies were bolstering, denial, and attacking accusers. Benoit and Hanczor evaluate this defense as ineffective.

Actor Hugh Grant was arrested for lewd behavior with a prostitute. He attempted to repair his image on several late-night talk shows, relying mainly on mortification, bolstering, and attacking accusers (the news media was attacked for hounding his family, not for stories about Grant's misbehavior). His defense was evaluated as successful (Benoit, 1997a).

Benoit and Nill (1998b) investigated director Oliver Stone's defense of his film JFK. Stone's direction of the film, his sources, and the conspiracy theory of Kennedy's death were all criticized in the wake of his film. He attacked his accusers, bolstered the credibility of his major sources, denied the lone-gunman theory, and denied charges of inaccuracy in the film. This defense was evaluated favorably.

Brazeal (2008) investigated the image repair strategies of Terrell Owens, an American football player who was publicly critical of his team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Owens made a vague apology without admitting any fault on his part. His manager provided a more extensive defense, attacking Owens's accusers (the team had not supported
him). The spokesperson bolstered Owens's character, claimed good intentions, and offered mortification for Owens (again without conceding any specific faults). Neither Owens nor his manager employed corrective action, and the image repair effort was unsuccessful.

Bruce and Tini (2008) apply image repair theory to public relations efforts on behalf of the Australasian men's rugby league cap scandal. The Canterbury Bulldogs were accused of cheating by violating the league's salary cap restrictions. The Bulldogs primarily employed denial, moving to scapegoating when their CEO resigned. This strategy was employed again as the Bulldog's entire board resigned. The Leagues Club employed provocation and mortification, shifting to scapegoating the Bulldogs team first and then the Leagues Club spokesperson, who resigned. Bruce and Tini argue for a new strategy, diversion, as the Bulldogs tried to shift attention away from management and toward the welfare of the players.

Fortunato (2008) studied the Duke University lacrosse scandal, in which three of the team's players were alleged to have sexually assaulted an exotic dancer hired for a party. He argued that the university employed mortification (accepting responsibility for the incident), bolstering (stressing positive traits of the university), and corrective action (working to prevent recurrence of the incident). Len-Rios (2010) performed a content analysis on statements from Duke along with newspaper stories on the scandal. When discussing the athletes, the university used denial (of the rape allegation) and mortification (for a lapse in judgment in holding the party). When discussing the university, Duke used bolstering, attacking of accusers, corrective action, and separation (suggesting that the coach was in part to blame and that he would be replaced). The defense was more effective at repairing the athletes' images with the local community than at reaching other audiences.

Pfahl and Bates (2008) investigated events surrounding a problem with apparently defective Michelin tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After two crashes during practice, Michelin asked the international racing organization, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), to change the rules for the race. FIA employed transcendence (it is important to uphold the rules of the sport and apply them consistently) and attack accuser (blaming Michelin for problems and suggesting Michelin reimburse fans). Michelin used transcendence in a different way, arguing safety was the most important consideration. It shifted blame to FIA for not adopting any of Michelin's alternative solutions. The tire company also used corrective action, vowing to investigate the problem and fix it. Michelin-supported
racing teams blamed Michelin and also argued for the importance of safety (transcendence). Finally, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway also blamed Michelin and used defeasibility (the problems were beyond the speedway's control). It is clear that image repair in team sport deserves further research.

Vice President Dick Cheney injured Harry Whittington in 2006 during a hunting party. Although he was vice president at the time, this incident did not concern his elected office. He was criticized for the accident as well as for maintaining a public silence about the incident for 4 days. Theye (2008) offers a narrative analysis of his defense, arguing that his narrative defense for shooting his hunting partner was generally effective, but his attempt to respond to charges of his handling of the situation was less successful.

Cyclist Floyd Landis was accused of using illegal performanceenhancing substances to win the Tour de France in 2006. Glantz (2009) argued that his use of denial and differentiation was inconsistent, his use of attack accuser was unpersuasive, and the supporters who offered third party defenses lacked credibility. Thus his image repair effort was ineffectual.

Wen, Yu, and Benoit (2009) investigated defenses of Taiwanese major league pitcher Chien-ming Wang after lost games. They examined defenses by Wang and by Taiwanese newspapers. They argued that the newspapers could utilize strategies such as blaming his teammates that Wang could not (or should not) employ.

Swimmer Michael Phelps earned distinction for winning more Olympic medals than anyone in history. A picture appeared in a tabloid that showed him smoking marijuana from a pipe. Walsh and McAllister-Spooner (2011) found that he effectively used mortification, bolstering, and corrective action to repair his image.

Brown, Dickhaus, and Long (2012) report data from a laboratory study about basketball star LeBron James's decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010. They created a newspaper article about this incident and manipulated the image repair strategy described in the story. Mortification was more effective at repairing James's image than shifting the blame or bolstering.

Benoit (2013) investigated Tiger Woods's image repair discourse after the revelation of his marital infidelity. He relied mainly on mortification and corrective action for his infidelity, also using transcendence (right to privacy) and attacking accusers for hounding his family. His choice of strategies was appropriate, but some wondered why he waited so long to give his speech and questioned his sincerity. Blaney, Lippert, and Smith's 2013 book offers many other analyses of image repair in sports. Husselbee and Stein (2012) used the concept of antapologia (Stein, 2008; critical response to an apology) to examine newspaper responses to Tiger Woods's 2010 apology for his infidelity. Content analysis revealed that coverage stressed the athlete's character flaws, argued that he had not sufficiently accepted responsibility for his offense, and questioned his motive for apologizing.

Actor Ricky Gervais created controversy when he hosted the Golden Globe Awards in 2011; critics thought his jokes crossed the line of good taste. Kauffman (2012) looked at his image repair effort on Piers Morgan Tonight. Gervais used denial, minimization, bolstering, good intentions, transcendence, and attack accuser; he threw out a half-hearted attempt at mortification (saying he was sorry if some were offended but he did not do anything wrong). This defense was evaluated as ineffective.

Research into image repair in the entertainment domain has examined athletes and other celebrities. Most research focuses on the discourse provided by the accused, but some research examined newspaper coverage and conducted audience effects experiments in the laboratory. This chapter offers two additional examples of image repair in sports: the New Orleans Saints football team's response to allegations that bounties were paid for injuring opposing players, and Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey about his doping.

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