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Case studies: how to communicate effectively during a crisis

This is an excerpt from Sport Public Relations 3rd Edition With Web Resource by G. Clayton Stoldt,Stephen W. Dittmore,Mike Ross & Scott E. Branvold.

Crisis Response Case Studies

Although a sport organ­ization ­will rarely endure a crisis unscathed, analyses of several high-­profile crisis cases in sport indicate that some effectively managed the crises that they faced and, as a result, recovered rather quickly. One example focuses on tennis star Maria Sharapova, the other on the NFL.

Just as successful responses may serve as educational tools regarding how to communicate effectively during a crisis, case studies of unsuccessful responses also yield insights—­especially about ­mistakes to avoid. The examples of how Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics mismanaged crises related to the Nassar crimes have already been referenced. Two additional examples are NCAA Division I institution Duke University and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

Consider ­these questions as you read the case studies:

  1. How do you think the crisis appraisal criteria (Coombs, 2019) described ­earlier in the chapter informed the crisis response?
  2. Why do you think so many other sports figures and organ­izations are hesitant to adopt the “stealing thunder” approach?
  3. How might reputations have been affected if dif­fer­ent crisis response strategies had been selected?
  4. How would you assess ­these brands ­today?

Maria Sharapova: Doping

­Women’s tennis star Maria Sharapova faced perhaps the most significant crisis of her ­career in 2016 when she failed a drug test and received a two-­year suspension (­later reduced to 15 months) by the International Tennis Federation. Sharapova was the winner of five ­Grand Slam events, and she had leveraged her tennis success through endorsement deals and other business ventures to become the world’s top-­earning female athlete for years. At the 2016 Australian Open, she tested positive for meldonium, a drug that had been added to the banned list months ­earlier.

Sharapova preemptively announced the failed drug test at a March 2016 news conference that was promoted via her social media and livestreamed over her website. At that news conference, she admitted her guilt but explained the context of the failed test, indicating that the substance was found in a prescription drug she had been taking for over a de­cade. Sharapova indicated difficulty in accessing the most current list of banned substances and stated the drug was not taken for per­for­mance enhancement. She subsequently posted additional explanation on her Facebook page to ­counter what she said was some incorrect media coverage of the story’s details.

Sharapova utilized a “stealing thunder” approach to the crisis (Bell & Hartman, 2018). By personally breaking the news, taking owner­ship of the situation, and using her own social and digital platforms to elevate her story, she was able to communicate directly with her fan base and influence related media coverage. As stated by Bell and Hartman (2018, p. 381), “Media framing of Sharapova’s approach ranged from mild to glowing as an exemplar that runs ­counter to any athlete strategy previously employed regarding drug use or suspensions.” One public relations executive observed that Sharapova’s response was refreshingly innovative: “Her tack was one of honesty, directness, and accountability. She did not use spokespeople or press releases or even Oprah to come clean. In ­doing so, she has saved herself countless hours of brand-­damaging news reports” (Piedra, 2016).

As of 2019, Sharapova had not returned to tennis’s elite, but her brand weathered the crisis in good fashion. Sharapova retained most of her sponsors and maintained her ranking among the top 10 highest-­earning female athletes (Badenhausen, 2019). The earnings total is likely an indicator that Sharapova’s marketability is not necessarily contingent on her tennis per­for­mance. However, her sustained popularity is likely also in part the result of a successful crisis response.

National Football League: Traumatic Brain Injury Link

As noted in the chapter’s introduction, the NFL has dealt with a sustained crisis about the long-­term health effects of the game on players, particularly brain trauma. Public discussion of the topic dates back more than 60 years (Paolini, 2019). The issue gained prominence in 2005 when an article in a medical journal reported that a prominent former player, who had died at age 50, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of multiple concussions. Subsequent studies supported the finding, with one influential researcher describing evidence of the linkage between repeated brain trauma and CTE as “overwhelming” (Hanna & Kain, 2010). Another article published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the brain tissue of 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players was diagnosed as having CTE (Mez et al., 2017). The authors explic­itly stated the risk of CTE associated with playing American football.

The CTE crisis pre­sents a threat to the NFL on multiple fronts. The league has already faced litigation with the resultant settlement costing hundreds of millions dollars. Broader public relations concerns include the impact on the league’s brand and how the crisis might affect fan support and related revenue (e.g., value of broadcast rights, ticket sales). Another consideration is the effect on youth football participation rates and how a reduction could affect the talent pipeline and ­future fandom levels.

As the title of a prominent book (Fainaru-­Wade & Fainaru, 2013) and related PBS Frontline documentary indicated, the NFL initially was a “League of Denial.” It rejected the notion of a CTE linkage and established its own committee to publish research countering the argument. However, in the face of mounting information and public criticism, the league changed its position in 2016, acknowledging the connection between playing football and CTE. The NFL settled a class-­action lawsuit with thousands of former players in 2015, although ­legal wrangling about terms of eligibility followed. The league also ­adopted rule changes designed to make the game safer. The aforementioned “Play Smart, Play Safe” initiative is an example of this shift in strategy. Another example was the league’s mea­sured response to the JAMA report. Rather than attack the study, which admittedly relied on a con­ve­nience sample of donated organs, the league affirmed the work being done to study CTE while cautioning about the many remaining unanswered questions (Coombs, 2017).

Crisis communications scholar Timothy Coombs (2017) observed, “The NFL may have found its method of dealing with the chronic issues of CTE—­acknowledge the prob­lem and consider CTE part of the price for American football.” And ­legal scholar Mikayla Paolini (2019) likened the league’s revised position as taken from the “Big Tobacco Playbook.” While the issue ­will likely continue to be the basis for challenges to the league, the NFL continues to be the most popu­lar sport in the United States, particularly as evidenced by tele­vi­sion ratings.

Duke University: Rape Accusations

Duke University suffered one of the most prominent crises in the history of college athletics when three members of its men’s lacrosse team ­were accused of rape and other crimes in 2006. The charge was made by an exotic dancer hired by members of the team to perform at an off-­campus party. In the course of a controversial investigation, the district attorney indicated that as many as 46 members of the team ­were ­under suspicion of having ­violated the law (Associated Press, 2007).

Twelve days ­after the party, Duke officials forfeited two upcoming men’s lacrosse games in response to team members’ hiring exotic dancers and engaging in underage drinking at the party. Three days ­later, university officials suspended the program while awaiting “clearer resolution of the ­legal situation” (Associated Press, 2007). Less than 10 days ­later, Duke’s men’s lacrosse coach resigned, and the school president canceled the remainder of the team’s season. The move followed the revelation of a vulgar e-­mail from a lacrosse player about killing strippers. Two months ­after suspending the program, the university president reinstated the program with stricter monitoring (Associated Press, 2007). Months ­later, charges against all three players ­were dropped, and ultimately the district attorney resigned ­after a state bar panel concluded that he acted improperly during the course of the investigation (Wilson & Holusha, 2007).

Analy­sis of how Duke administrators managed the lacrosse incident revealed four key ­mistakes (Yaeger & Henry, 2009). First, Duke erred in that it did not use an established internal communications plan, as evidenced by the fact that the school president learned of the incident by reading the school newspaper (ABC News, 2007; Yaeger & Henry, 2009; Yaeger & Pressler, 2007). Second, Duke administrators failed to maintain consistent communication with the media throughout the crisis, thereby increasing the need for reporters to find other sources for their stories. Third, Duke administrators unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the news value of the story when they canceled the season. Fourth and most impor­tant, Duke administrators failed to wait on all relevant facts before acting. Yaeger and Henry (2009) likened the approach to one-­move chess—­that is, “making decisions with no re­spect for strategy.”

FIFA: Corruption Charges

The international governing body for soccer (football), FIFA had long experienced reputational prob­lems even before a corruption scandal in 2015 (Barrett, 2015). However, the 2015 crisis seriously escalated FIFA’s credibility issues. The organ­ization was already taking international criticism over ­human rights violations suffered by workers constructing facilities in Qatar where the 2022 World Cup is to be played. Then on May 27, 2015, the U.S. attorney general announced the indictments of nine FIFA officials on corruption charges. Swiss officials made related arrests in the case and announced their own investigation into FIFA corruption. A FIFA spokesperson denied the organ­ization was in crisis, indicated the arrests ­were actually a positive development, and characterized the organ­ization as “the damaged party” (Walter De Gregorio, quoted in Suleman, 2015).

Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, was not among ­those arrested, but he was widely criticized as the leader of a corrupt organ­ization. However, Blatter did not admit to a major prob­lem, saying on May 28 that the scandal was ­limited to “the actions of a few” (quoted in Washkuch, 2015). Then remarkably, Blatter was elected to a fifth term as FIFA president on May 29. Days ­later, on June 2, he resigned, citing lack of support throughout FIFA’s constituencies.

FIFA’s employment of denial and victimage strategies proved in­effec­tive, and Blatter’s refusal to accept responsibility and recognize the need for orga­nizational change further exacerbated the growing crisis. Again, crisis communications scholar Coombs (2015) offers insightful commentary:

In a scandal, man­ag­ers are recommended to take corrective action and apologize for the inappropriate actions in an effort to repair the damage inflicted by the crisis. When a scandal indicates the prob­lem is a part of the orga­nizational structure, the corrective action includes removing top management and creating new policies and procedures designed to prevent a repeat of the prob­lem—­the system needs change.

FIFA enacted reforms in 2016, but the investigations, bans, and arrests of FIFA officials and their business associates have continued. Much scrutinized World Cup site se­lections did not change, with the 2018 event being played in Rus­sia and the 2022 event still scheduled for Qatar, as originally awarded. FIFA retained its major sponsors, so absent substantive consequences from its most critical stakeholders, the organ­ization has avoided having to make more dramatic changes. ­Little won­der that a 2017 global survey of soccer fans indicated more than half had no confidence in FIFA, and only a third thought the organ­ization was actively working against corruption (Transparency International, 2017). As Steve Barrett, editorial director for PR Week, stated, “From a business and communications point of view, [the FIFA crisis is] a stark reminder that the glamour and excitement of major sports and entertainment events can never be allowed to cloud the authenticity, ethics, and transparency that should always underpin brand and corporate reputation” (2015).