When Athletes Attack

4 min read

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard the story. If not, here, in a nutshell, it is:

Jay Cutler, the Chicago Bears’ quarterback, left their playoff game this past Sunday after the first half. Apparently, he had a knee injury.

But he didn’t look injured. Didn’t have ice on his knee. Hung around the sideline looking glum. Didn’t appear to offer any help to the second- and third-string quarterbacks who took his place. Why wasn’t he playing? Did he quit? It was rumored that he took himself out of the game.

Cutler sure didn’t seem hurt enough to some NFL players and commentators watching the game. Twitter went crazy with athletes smacking Cutler. The Arizona Cardinals’ Darnell Dockett: “If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT.” The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played the whole season on one.”

As it turns out, Cutler had a torn medial collateral ligament. On our local sports radio program, Mark Patrick on Sports, our friend Dr. Todd Arnold of St.Vincent Sports Performance said that a torn MCL would put Cutler out for two or three games. Bears’ Head Coach Lovie Smith said he and the team doctors took Cutler out of the game. His teammates vouched for him: he couldn’t push off the leg. Cutler wasn’t a quitter. He wanted back in the game–the biggest game of his career.

Nobody interviewed on Monday could recall seeing anything like this happen, ever. Cutler’s peers called him out as a quitter. Funny to have to root for a guy to be hurt to shut up his critics, but their behavior was self-aggrandizing and shameful.

So why did it happen?

It happened because we live in a media age where, if you’re a highly paid athlete, it’s apparently not okay to sulk or be diffident. Jay Cutler has always been known as a difficult guy. Sportswriters don’t like him. He’s received all sorts of criticism for not being more friendly, more open. ESPN Columnist Rick Reilly called him “as popular as gout.”

Now add Twitter. If you follow sports on Twitter, you know that in-game tweeting is big. Athletes and media stars tweet during games to help increase their followings. So you’ve got thousands of loose cannons spewing whatever is on their minds into the blogosphere. No fact-checking, no insight. Just uninformed opinion.

So what’s the lesson for marketers?

Know that this sort of thing can happen to you, too. You can’t control social media. If a whole bunch of people agree to spread bad feelings about you, you can’t stop them. Ignoring or prohibiting social media won’t help. Remember, you can’t control it.

But you can control, to come degree, your public image. Jay Cutler is reputed to be a strange and difficult dude. When something appeared to be amiss, the vultures attacked. There was so much ill will toward Cutler in the air that they simply couldn’t resist.

Is it fair? Of course it isn’t fair. Jay Cutler has been difficult, but he’s a tough competitor who’s been banged around a lot. If he’s never been an inspirational leader, he’s also never complained. It’s ridiculous to question his heart just because you don’t like him.

But–clearly–it matters how you treat people. In today’s overheated media environment, if people have a cause to think they don’t like you, they can turn on you–fast. Even after the sports chatterers had spent most of Monday talking about how outrageous the rush to judgment against Cutler had been, there were rumblings of defensiveness and discontent. Cutler may not have been feigning injury, but he was still a jerk, just standing around with his sour Jay Cutler face, not helping the team. And he hadn’t played well in the first half, so there was that, too. There was still plenty to hate about Jay Cutler.

I repeat: not fair. Shameful. Outrageous. And, perhaps, inevitable. If people like you, they’ll forgive a lot; Toyota is still the biggest carmaker in the world. If they don’t like you, bad opinion can blaze out of control.

Be nice to people. Take care of your customers and fans. Build up good will, and it will see you through trying times. Act like a jerk, and people will treat you like a jerk–even when you don’t deserve it.

(Photo of Jay Cutler nicked from poponthepop.com.)