Lessons learnt from the top sports crises of 2017

It is no surprise in this era of rolling 24/7 news, smartphones and social media that crises occur on a regular basis.

Organisations and the people that work within them make mistakes and no more so than in the high profile world of sport. 

This week, for instance, Nigeria international Alex Iwobi was filmed at a party the day before Arsenal's humiliating defeat against Nottingham Forest, provoking front page headlines.

It is said that crisis and opportunity go hand-in-hand and there are certainly lessons to learn from some of the notable controversies of the past 12 months.

Here's our take on some of the big sports controversies of 2017 and how to deal with similar problems that you may encounter. 


Sutton United goalkeeper Wayne Shaw ate a pie during February's FA Cup loss to Arsenal after a bookmaker had offered odds of 8-1 that he would eat a pie on camera.

Shaw was accused of intentionally influencing a football betting market and sacked by his club. The charge, which he denied, was found proven after an Independent Regulatory Commission hearing and he was fined £375 and banned for two months for breaching FA betting rules.

Learning: Ensure your staff are regularly reminded of the rules and regulations associated with your business and their responsibility to behave correctly at all times.

Team Sky

The most successful cycling team of modern times were established on a foundation of excellence and transparency in performance and procedures.

But Team Sky were unable to provide records to back up the claim that Bradley Wiggins was given a legal decongestant at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine in France.

After muddled responses from team principal Sir Dave Brailsford, MPs criticised the team's record-keeping, while UK Anti-Doping (Ukad) ended its inquiry after it was unable to find sufficient evidence to determine what was in the package.

Learning: Ensure your internal processes are robust and keep detailed documentation in case it is required in future. When speaking to the media, check your facts beforehand, be clear and comprehensive, particularly when dealing with sensitive or controversial topics.


The Boston Marathon will now always be associated with a terrorist attack in 2013 which killed three people and injured hundreds more.

Sponsor adidas sent an email the day after the 2017 Boston Marathon to participants with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”

The backlash was immediate, and adidas spokeswoman Maria Culp quickly issued a public apology the same day saying, “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.”

Learning: Always consider the context and content of any materials you share with your audiences to ensure that they are not inappropriate or likely to cause offence.

Respond quickly and apologise if you have made a mistake, as adidas did as soon as the problem arose. How you deal with a problem is often as critical as the issue itself and can shape your reputation in future.

Maria Sharapova

After a 15-month ban for taking banned meldonium, former world number one Maria Sharapova made her return to tennis with a wildcard entry at the Porsche Grand Prix.

Her return sparked controversy with Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard claiming the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) sent out the wrong message by welcoming "cheater" Sharapova back to the sport, claiming the Russian should not be allowed to play again.

Sharapova responded with dignity and said: "I’ve always tried to keep a generous attitude toward critics in general. I’ve never wanted to respond to the people trashing me by trashing them back; that’s always been important to me. I’ve always wanted to respond by showing grace — and by showing them, by showing everyone, that taking the high road is a choice."

Learning: When your reputation is questioned, it is important to maintain brand values, stay on the front foot and not get drawn into a public argument that will simply fuel the story. 

Italian Football Federation

Ghanaian footballer Sulley Muntari was banned for one match after protesting against racist abuse he received from the crowd during a match in Italy’s Serie A.

The Pescara midfielder was given a yellow card for dissent after asking the referee to stop the club’s Serie A match against Cagliari and then received a second having walked off the pitch in protest.

Officials claimed not enough supporters took part in the abuse to trigger action and upheld his ban, sparking claims that they were effectively condoning racism.

Learning: If you have not reviewed processes or rules recently that may be outdated, you are leaving yourself open to reputational damage. What message are you sending to potential stakeholders if you refuse to move with the times?

Tiger Woods

Once the best golfer in the world, Tiger Woods had five drugs in his system when he was charged with driving under the influence, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff toxicology report.

The police mugshot of Woods went viral and led to further predictions that his career was finished, only a few years after the very public breakdown of his marriage.

Woods' career earnings have been estimated at about $1.5bn and he was the poster boy for a new era of golf, making the sport more appealing to the masses.

Learning: Why do people want to work or be associated with you? Why should they invest in you? If your behaviour slips below acceptable standards or if you fail to put safeguards in place for eventualities, your reputation will suffer and so could your partnerships.

Wayne Rooney

No stranger to controversy, Everton and former England striker Wayne Rooney was arrested for drink-driving after a night out when he was also linked with a young woman he met at a bar.

Rooney apologised for an "unforgivable lack of judgment" after pleading guilty to drink-driving, was given a two-year driving ban and ordered to carry out unpaid community work after being caught three times over the legal alcohol limit. His pregnant wife and their three sons were on holiday at the time. 

Learning: Rooney admitted his guilt and quickly issued a public apology but after a series of controversies during his career, he personal reputation and endorsements are bound to be affected.

Remember and remind your colleagues that they represent your organisation at all times, not just during working hours. And with smartphone cameras everywhere, there is always someone likely to record your misdemeanours.

Ben Stokes

Ben Stokes missed out on competing in the Ashes, possibly the biggest cricket Test series for England players after being arrested in Bristol following a fight outside a club.

Stokes was immediately axed from the squad by the ECB after footage of the fight was broadcast around the world.

England went on to lose the series 4-0.

Learning: The ECB acted fast to suspend Stokes and communicate that through the media, which was absolutely the right thing to do. But the player's judgement and reputation have suffered, not to mention the prospect of a court appearance if he is later charged.

Mark Sampson

England Women's manager Mark Sampson was sacked after evidence of "inappropriate and unacceptable" behaviour while at the Bristol Academy.

Having previously been accused of making racially discriminatory comments to some of his players, Sampson's position was already under the spotlight and deeper investigation into his previous conduct made his position untenable.

The Football Association held a press conference to explain its decision to fire Sampson and have put further procedures in place to promote greater diversity and the opportunity for whistleblowing should players have concerns in future.

Learning: Who you employ or work with can have a significant impact on your reputation, so thorough background checks and comprehensive investigations into any allegations of wrongdoing are vital.

Swift communication also allows you to control the story rather than react to it or be seen to be hiding while commentators criticise from afar.

Russian Sport

Russia were banned from competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang by the International Olympic Committee after an investigation into allegations of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Games hosted in Sochi.

Vitaly Mutko, the deputy prime minister of Russia, former minister of sport and chairman of the organising committee for the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia, was also barred from attending any future Olympic Games.

WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that Russia was still "non-compliant" to its code but Russian athletes who could prove they are clean would be allowed to compete in South Korea under a neutral flag.

Learning: The IOC made the right decision in banning Russia while giving clean athletes the opportunity to compete. Boycotts and blanket bans punish the innocent, many of whom may never have another chance to compete at an Olympic Games again.

By showing fairness and undertaking a thorough investigation, they adhered to the Olympic Values that promote the integrity of sport.

Maintaining your brand values, communicating the reasons for any strategic decisions you take and remaining transparent builds strong relationships with your stakeholders.