Top 10 Worst PR Moves in U.S. Sports History

By July 13, 2010 July 29th, 2016 Industry Perspective

It’s official (I think) – LeBron James has made one of the worst public relations mistakes in U.S. sports history. Congratulations, King James! It’s a sports feat for which he wasn’t training, but what’s even more impressive is the fact that this was all his choosing.

Some PR mistakes are spur-of-the-moment, while others are planned events gone wrong. James’s event was a calculated publicity circus that led up to his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Don’t get me wrong, Cleveland was never going to be happy with him leaving for another NBA team. However, he could have handled it much better – and by better, I mean not crushing the city of Cleveland, and with it the country’s pull for the “hometown hero,” on a nationally televised show called “The Decision.” Somewhere Kobe Bryant is slightly relieved.

The latest PR debacle got me thinking about other well-publicized PR mistakes in sports history. Certainly open for outside opinions and debate, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten worst PR moves in U.S. sports history.

  1. LeBron James – Players leave teams or get traded all the time, so why is this #1? The Ohio “hometown hero” created a publicity fiasco that not only humiliated his hometown fans in the most public way possible, but also alienated nearly all NBA fans in general (outside of Miami Heat fans). I mean, who really arranges to go on national television and publicly divorce himself from his hometown city and team? “The King,” that’s who!
  2. Babe Ruth – When the Boston Red Sox manager sold pitcher/outfielder George Herman Ruth, “Babe Ruth,” to the New York Yankees in 1920, the “Curse of the Bambino” began to materialize. Before he was traded, Ruth helped win three World Series games for the Red Sox, and prompted a winning streak for New York that would haunt Boston fans for decades. After this trade, Boston didn’t see another World Series title for 86 years. Ouch – that hurts the public image!
  3. Tiger Woods – For years, Tiger Woods arguably had one of the best images in all of sports. All people could imagine was Tiger holding a golf club, winning title after title and going down as one of the greatest ever to play the game. However, after his car struck a tree as he fled from the family home in a gated community near Orlando, Florida, people began questioning, “what’s up with Tiger?” A series of revelations followed from at least 15 identified women who claimed they had affairs with the golfer. The scandal led to Woods losing millions in sponsorship deals, including those with Gillette, Accenture, AT&T and PepsiCo, a $100 million divorce settlement with his estranged wife, Elin Nordegren, and a forever tainted public image.
  4. Pete Rose – Over a three-decade career in baseball, Peter Rose earned the nickname “Charlie Hustle” for his aggressive play and desire to win. He set dozens of records — including breaking Ty Cobb‘s record for the most hits ever. But in 1989, reports emerged that Rose, then the Reds’ manager, was gambling on baseball. After a six-month investigation by Major League Baseball, on Aug. 24 of that year, he agreed to leave baseball for life. Denying for nearly 15 years that he bet on baseball, Major League Baseball’s Hit King finally admitted in his autobiography, published in January 2004, that he made baseball wagers while he managed the Cincinnati Reds.
  5. Robert Irsay – For nearly 40 years, the Colts called Baltimore home. However, years of success and popularity with players such as Johnny Unitas and coaches such as Don Shula, winning two World Championships and the 1971 Super Bowl, quickly sent the Colts into a decline. Owner Robert Irsay, who acquired the Colts in 1972, wanted the city of Baltimore to upgrade its stadium. But with attendance dwindling and the team playing poorly, city officials were wary of such an investment. Relations between Irsay and the city worsened, and he began shopping his team around to other cities hungry for an NFL franchise. In late March of 1984, Irsay shook the sports landscape by secretly moving the franchise to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, leaving a city of deeply devoted fans in shock and disbelief.
  6. O. J. Simpson – A two-time All-America from the University of Southern California and the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner, O. J. Simpson, was one of history’s most heralded rookies when the Buffalo Bills selected him as the number one player in the 1969 draft. However, years after his legendary career had ended, Simpson starred in the most talked about soap opera of the 1990’s: the murder trial of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman – and the infamous live car chase. Although the NFL Hall-of-Famer was acquitted, Simpson’s image was ruined and several civil law suits later, so was most of his fortune. He is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence for an unrelated Las Vegas armed robbery.
  7. Michael Vick – In 2004, Michael Vick was on top of the sports world. Drafted number one overall in the NFL draft and signing a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, Vick was supposed to transcend the sport. But in 2007, Vick was found guilty for running an illegal dogfighting ring at one of his properties in southeastern Virginia. He was charged with competitive dogfighting and conducting the venture across state lines, in which served 20 months in prison.
  8. Mark McGwire – Currently eighth on the all-time home run list with 583 homers, Mark McGwire captivated the world of sports in 1998 in a race with Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ home run record of 61 in a single season. More than anything else, the home run spree revitalized baseball following the crippling strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. However, four years after he retired in 2001, “Big Mac’s” reputation took a major hit when he refused to answer questions at a congressional hearing. Repeatedly saying, “I’m not here to talk about the past,” when asked whether he took illegal steroids when he hit the then-record 70 home runs in 1998, or at any other time, McGwire (and plenty of others) left a “cloud” over the game of baseball that still exists today. Then in January 2010, ending more than a decade of denials and evasion, McGwire admitted that steroids and human growth hormone helped make him a home run king.
  9. Tonya Harding – On January 6, 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked while training for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, leaving her injured and unable to compete. With Kerrigan on the sidelines, her biggest rival, Tonya Harding, skated to victory. As both women prepared to compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics, rumors began circulating that Harding was involved in the assault, which caused an international media frenzy…and some lame jokes to boot. Harding was later banned from U.S. Figure Skating for life.
  10. It’s Up to YOU – After taking input from numerous colleagues and friends on who else should make the list, it comes down to you – the reader – and your thoughts. Who gets your vote for making one of the top ten worst PR moves in sports?

    Is it Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker being caught making obnoxiously racist remarks in an interview with a journalist, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger latest sexual misconduct fiasco, or NFL Hall of Fame shoe-in Brett Favre’s decision to come out of retirement and play for a non-Green Bay Packers team (hat tip @elharmonz)?

    Post your comments and thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think.


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Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Julie says:

    All I have to say is thank goodness for #5. Go INDIANAPOLIS Colts!!

  • Adair says:

    I agree with Julie- GO HORSE! But I think #2 calls for a Sandlot quote.
    “But it was signed by Babe Ruth!

    -Yeah, you keep telling me that! Who is she?

    The sultan of swat! The king of crash! The colossus of clout! The colossus of clout! BABE RUTH! THE GREAT BAMBINO!

    -Oh my god! You mean that’s the same guy?”

  • Emily says:

    Brett Favre should DEFINITELY be on this list. How many times has he retired and then un-retired? The man actually told the fans in Green Bay, after signing with the Minnesota Vikings, “If you’re a true Packer fan, you understand.” Not something you say to some of the most dedicated fans in the league.

    Oh and I totally agree with Julie – thank goodness for Irsay’s decision! In the end, it turned out pretty good for us.

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  • elharmonz says:

    I was kind of hoping there would be a distinction between “PR Blunders” and “outright criminal activity.” Are being charged with assault, illegal dogfighting, and murdering two people (via civil trial) really PR blunders? If so I’m due for some serious jail time.

    I like the other options on the list – and yes, score one for Favre.

    One final thought: why is it that Art Modell, Robert Irsay and Indianapolis are decried in the franchise-moving stories, yet Baltimore somehow escapes it? Didn’t they pave the way for the Browns franchise to relocate? Is it somehow not hypocritical because they got ganked first? Somehow they get a pass.

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  • Mark says:

    Zinedine Zidan, the french mid-fielder widely regarded as one of the best of all-time, in his last year in the 2006 World Cup in Germany against Italy, headbutted another player who provoked him. Zidan got a red card that eliminated him from a chance to help his team win in penalty kicks in what was the last time anyone saw Zidan on a soccer field. There was nothing negative to say about his brilliant career and now on the biggest stage of all in the most crucial moment he makes a bone headed move to change everything.

  • Mark says:

    For the worst US PR moves in sports history, either Rafeal Palmero or maybe Roger Clemens would have to be considered, both who were locks for the Hall of Fame except possibly for their steroid use and statements denying it before Congress.

    We know that Rafeal,the former Viagra man, was found with Steroids in his system but he doesn’t know how they got there. Roger is in potentially serious trouble for having possibly lied before congress.

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