Sharapova, drugs and public relations
Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.
So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.
However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:
1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.
2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.
As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:
- Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
- Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
- At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.
What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.
The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.