In case you have been living under a rock somewhere for the past few weeks or so, let me set the scene: Maria Sharapova – considered by many to be the ultimate tennis poster-girl – called an emergency press conference out of the blue. Rumours of retirement had been circling for some time now following an injury-plagued couple of years. It had to be that. Surely.
But no. Sharapova stood in front of the world and admitted that the International Tennis Federation had found a banned substance in a sample she gave prior to the Australian Open final.
She had, she claimed, been taking this substance to combat a medical condition for some time before it made it onto the ‘banned’ list on January 1, 2016. Nevertheless, she accepted that this was her error; she had no excuses and will face whatever the consequences may be.
Sport has often been an industry of denial and ‘no comment’ in times of crisis. Justin Gatlin’s spin-doctor-esque semi-admission in 2001 – “I never knowingly took any substance that would improve my performance” – and Lance Armstrong’s years of aggressive denial are just two examples of the reluctance of sports stars to acknowledge that their successes could be down to anything other than dedication, perseverance and talent.
This denial culture does not just apply to doping but flows through every vein of competitive sport. Football managers are, by and large, reluctant to criticise the performance of their own players or admit their tactics were not good enough following a defeat. As a Derby County fan – something I had no say in, thanks Dad – I have to endure our coach telling us how proud he is of our players after they lose and how it wasn’t at all deserved. Trust me, it was.
So to hear an athlete at the absolute pinnacle of their profession come out and admit their guilt prior to the official report being released was massively refreshing. I – a firm believer in karma, I should add – almost felt sorry for her. It was an absolute PR masterstroke.
By coming out so early with no spokesperson, Sharapova completely owns the narrative. She has set the scene and painted herself to be nothing more than careless. She should have been aware that this substance was now banned. She should have but, stupidly, she wasn’t.
Perhaps her greatest rival on the court, Serena Williams, came out almost instantly and said how ‘brave’ Sharapova was in facing this head-on. The backlash has been far less severe than in Gatlin and Armstrong’s cases where their initial denial counted against them in the long term. We had time to make up our minds about them. With Sharapova we didn’t; she made our minds up for us.
Of course, all of her major sponsors have ‘reluctantly’ cut ties with her but that was to be expected. I have a feeling she won’t be surprised, either, but their ‘reluctance’ speaks volumes. This has been textbook damage limitation.
While crisis management has shifted somewhat to match the increasingly digital, social landscape, the old adage of “deny, deny, deny” has always remained, due to pride, vanity or otherwise. However, after seeing Sharapova’s bold handling of a situation that is notoriously difficult, I think we may be entering into a new chapter of honesty: “Admit it, accept it and move on.”