Business Should Learn From Recent Athlete Fumbles

The tales of two high-profile athletes in the spotlight this week should leave us with a valuable lesson: don’t build a campaign based on a lie.

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Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o both provided us examples of what not to do.  Armstrong finally admitted this week to to taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) while battling testicular cancer and capturing 7 Tour de France titles.  Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is suspected of participating in a hoax of using a dead girlfriend to gather sympathy and possible Heisman Trophy votes.  Even if he is fully innocent of being ‘in’ on the hoax, his public response (non-response) is also one to learn from.  Each athlete is hoping to launch a new phase of their career once the current media storm blows over.  Armstrong hopes to enter the world of triathlons while Te’o is eligible for the NFL draft in April.

Neither campaign of lies was debunked until after the fact.  Armstrong used the notoriety of winning cycling’s biggest event 7 times to rake in millions of dollars from product endorsements.  He also started the Livestrong organization dedicated to raising money for cancer victims.  Until this week, the cyclist vigorously denied using PEDs, even threatening to sue those who accused him of doing so.  Meanwhile, the Te’o situation is still unfolding, but did not become public until after the recent National Championship game.  Many people, including some of his Notre Dame teammates, feel he played ‘the sympathy card’ to gain publicity during his senior season.  School officials have publicly backed their player, but Te’o has been dead silent only letting rumors continue to spiral out of control.  Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he’s letting detractors dictate the portrayal of him in a very negative manner.

The lesson for the rest of us is that winning based on falsehoods will lead to public embarrassment.  You can’t intentionally mislead your customers/followers without eventually being penalized for it.  Sure, you may have great ‘success’ in the meantime, but any business will suffer when it is draped in a cloud of suspected illegal or immoral activity.  Today’s media-savvy society (both traditional and social media) can help expose falsehoods quicker than at any time in our past.  If traditional media outlets choose to return to basic journalistic principles, such as simple fact-checking or investigative reporting, these ‘outings’ will happen on an even more frequent basis.

I’ve said in this space before, ‘clever is good but intentionally misleading is bad.”  Whether it’s sports, business, or politics, the intent to mislead followers erodes integrity.  Can you (or your business) afford to take a significant hit to your integrity?  Even if so, why would you want to?

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