For the longest time, professional athletes haven’t just been recognized for what they do on the field, but are scrutinized for the lives they are leading off the field. With the sponsorship investments in key players reaching far into the millions, is there a smart way to handle the off-field misconduct of players?
Sports news seems to revolve around the negativity surrounding the personal lives of some of sports’ biggest players like Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and recently, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. With a franchise that has won six Super Bowl titles, it was a widely criticized move the Steelers made when trading Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft pick. The organization was looking to make an example out of Holmes, and some think Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney was hoping to send a message to Roethlisberger, who was at the time facing possible sexual misconduct charges for the second time in 12 months.
On the upside to this trade, the Steelers have rid themselves of Holmes, a player who has a pattern of drawing negative legal attention that is damaging to the team and the franchise. Along with Holmes’ assault charge, marijuana possession charge, and domestic violence charges, the Steelers also lost Holmes coming off a great season with 79 catches for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns. Although being in the public eye the Steelers’ franchise felt the urge to the do the right thing, some would argue why at such a low price? Perhaps the angry outcry from fans that are offended by the recent actions of both Holmes and Roethlisberger has put enough pressure on the organization to make a change.
In “Affinity and Affiliation: The Dual-Carriage Way to Team Identification,” which is being published in the June 2010 issue of Sport Marketing Quarterly, authors Mark Pritchard, Jeffrey Stinson, and Elizabeth Patton talk about the impact fan base can have on a team: “A parallel vein of research in sports has stemmed primarily from the belief that highly identified dedicated fans directly impact the economic success of teams and leagues.”
In a news segment by Pittsburgh’s KDKA News that aired April 23, the station received mixed reactions from adult fans who have children looking up to Big Ben. In reference to whether or not these parents would allow their children to continue to wear Roethlisberger’s No. 7 Steelers jersey, “Definitely not, not until Ben makes some better choices and shows that he is going to be a better role model and a better hero,” said parent Taryn Briggs. Another parent, Shelly Gold said, “He has a lot of making up to do to the city of Pittsburgh. It’s been embarrassing.”
Pritchard et al. make a strong point about the representation of purchasing and wearing a jersey that carries negative connotations. “When sport teams portray strength, teamwork, success or other desirable qualities, fans attracted to these attributes often attach themselves psychologically and identify with those teams. Consumers who become attached to products for symbolic reasons use this purchase behavior as a vehicle for self-representation.”
Aside from the loss of respect from fans, Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL for the first six games of the season, resulting in forfeiting an estimated $2.8 million of his $102 million total deal. The Steelers’ organization will also be fined a maximum of $200,000 by the NFL for acquiring a second suspension from a second player in a 12-month time span. After news broke of trading Holmes, many felt Roethlisberger was lucky to be given a second chance with the Steelers’ organization and are confident he will take the necessary steps to rebuilding his career.
The Jets, who signed Holmes for the upcoming season, understand the risk involved with investing in a young player who has a history of legal problems. Aside from his pending legal issues and league policy suspending him for the first four games of the season, the only risk Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum feels they have taken is hoping Holmes won’t continue down the same path.
“To go back down the same road, make the same mistakes, won’t be accepted,” Holmes said during a conference call with reporters.
The Jets ended their previous season with a 9-7-0 record and are looking to improve their organization with the addition of Holmes to talented players like Mark Sanchez, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Shonn Greene.
With the help of fan feedback, and league suspensions and fines, each of these teams handled the misconduct of their players from a business sense, weighing whether Roethlisberger and Holmes would potentially be more of a loss or gain for their organization. Only time, and the players’ future actions, will determine whether or not each organization made the right move.