I grew up worshiping the five-time, Grand Slam tennis champion and blonde bombshell, Maria Sharapova, on and off the court. Ever since she beat Serena Williams and won the Wimbledon title in 2004, she has been my idol. Over her 15 years as a professional athlete-turned-celebrity, Sharapova became the highest paid female athlete in the world making $29.7 million in 2015 – hello endorsements!
As you may know, on Monday, March 7, Sharapova held a press conference in downtown L.A. to confess that she failed a doping test during the Australian Open in January for using a substance called “meldonium” or mildronate. During the press conference, Sharapova stated that she has been using meldonium, as prescribed by her doctor, for the past 10 years to help manage health issues. The drug was placed on the banned substances list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on January 1, 2016 because it is also believed to help enhance athletic performance. As a result, Sharapova is provisionally banned by the International Tennis Federation starting on March 12 and faces up to a four-year ban in addition to being dropped by sponsors Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer. Most recently, she was also suspended as a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations.
As crisis communications experts, we at D+P believe Sharapova did the right thing by taking control of the narrative and getting out in front of the story. That is, by no means, an easy to decision to make; however, by not doing so, Sharapova would have been in a more difficult position of reacting to the news of her suspension. By holding a press conference and owning up to her mistake in a direct, professional and sincere speech, Sharapova took a short-term hit with the aim of preserving and protecting her reputation and brand for the long term. She took the opportunity to remind the audience that throughout her lengthy career, she has always been open and honest. Creating a link between words and actions is the most effective communications strategy.
But, on a personal note, I am still caught up by how Sharapova could EVER let this happen, regardless of how well she handled the story coming to light. How could her team of coaches, assistants, lawyers, managers, etc. let this happen? We sadly may never know.
In the upcoming weeks, I’m sure we will learn much more about the Sharapova doping scandal. We’ve already seen the outburst of criticism she has received from peers, celebrities and the public. And while the overall conclusion is that, yes, she should be punished, Sharapova has also received a lot of support from her fans as well as from the world’s No. 1 tennis champion Serena Williams and her racquet sponsor, Head, who intends to extend Sharapova’s contract.
As a lifelong fan, I’ll be waiting for her comeback.