ENTERTAINMENT LITIGATION: UPDATE ON PROTECTING CELEBRITIES

TAKING A LESSON FROM BASEBALL’S STEROID SCANDALS

The task of protecting celebrities from public humiliation is difficult and complex. In a recent post, I discussed strategies to protect celebrities and, in particular, the need to be absolutely sure about the true facts before embarking upon aggressive response strategies. Recent revelations about the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball illustrate the problems for celebrities facing scandalous allegations.

The way different players handle these difficult issues can provide lessons on how to deal with such accusations against any celeb.

DENY, DENY, DENY

In my prior post, I wrote about athletes who steadfastly denied any involvement with performance enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds denied “knowingly” using steroids and is now being prosecuted for perjury in San Francisco. Marion Jones sued her accuser, BALCO founder, Victor Conte, for defamation shortly before admitting she committed perjury in denying her steroid use. Roger Clemens is still pursuing his defamation case against his former trainer and accuser. As I wrote, the aggressive litigation response is a valid strategy — as long as the truth of the denial is clear. Otherwise, like with Jones, the strategy can backfire.

THE CONTRITE APOLOGETIC RESPONSE

The news cycle of the past few days illustrates a different approach. Sports Illustrated reported this weekend that New York Yankees third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. (I will write a post about the supposed confidentiality of those 2003 tests, and the recent leak thereof to the press, soon.) In the face of Rodriguez’s stern denials of drug use in 2007 on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Rodriguez seemed destined to be the latest player to fall from grace — the latest player disgraced by evidence directly contradicting denials of steroid use.

Yesterday, Rodriguez made his first, stunning response to the Sports Illustrated report. In an interview broadcast on ESPN, Rodriguez admitted using steroids during a three year period while with the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez apologized and attributed his mistake to his being “naive” and desire to live up to lofty expectations.

Rodriguez’s admissions followed a similar path to two of his Yankee teammates, Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte, who have apologized for their steroid use and who have seemingly moved on. Of course, the question remains whether a player of Rodriguez’s stature can also put this revelation behind him.

There is precedent in Hollywood for public acceptance of such a contrite apology. In 1995, actor Hugh Grant was arrested for lewd conduct in a public place when he was caught in the act with a prostitute. The arrest came shortly before Grant’s first big movie was to be released. Instead of hiding from the scandal, Grant kept his media appointments — particularly his interview on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Grant won the public over with his willingness to accept responsibility for his actions and refusal to make excuses. His movie, Nine Months, grossed almost $70 million in the United States and twice that worldwide.

THE BOTTOM LINE

So what we can learn from these examples is that denying scandalous accusations can backfire if the accusations are actually true. On the other hand, admitting to a “mistake” and making a sincere apology in the face of a scandal might lead to a full recovery.