Athletes’ activism in political and cultural issues dominated the discussion at the opening forum of LSU’s Sports Communication Summit.
The “Curve Balls for Front Office Managers” forum included panelists well known in sports communication who discussed the challenges they are faced with due to the powerful platform athletes are given.
Panelists included Erik Burkhardt, Eric Engemann, Craig Kelley and Tiffani Whittington with Denise Michaels serving as the moderator.
Kelley, the Colts’ longest-tenured Public Relations executive and member of the Manship’s Journalism Hall of Fame, spoke of the importance for “players to be players” and how distractions are not welcomed.
Kelley said players need to understand that if they “take a step out of lock step with 53 teammates” it puts everyone on trial ranging from their team to their families.
Burkhardt, owner and Co-Head at one of the most prestigious athlete representation firms Select Sports Group, spoke of the large challenge he is faced with of meeting players’ expectations of being marketed and branded.
He spoke of his job “80 percent of the time” included himself not letting players speak out on issues, in order to uphold that expected image.
“We generally coach them to stay out of politics…we’re always hoping the ball park will be a haven from politics and that’s not always the case,” said Michaels in reference to athletes.
According to most of the panelists, the best way to ensure athletes opinions on political or cultural issues are not mishandled is to be proactive rather than reactive.
Engemann, Vice President of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation, said a lot of issues in sports communication is “ultimately having a reactive response.”
He said “being as proactive and personable as possible” is the correct way to handle unforeseen events when it comes to a team and their brand.
Whittington, Director of Customer Service for Major League Soccer Team the Houston Dynamo, said having “a plan from the top down” from the public relations team to customer service is the best way to address issues that need to be addressed in regards to a team’s players.
“Communicating internally matters,” according to Engemann.
In an interview, Kelley spoke of not only the challenges professionals in sports communication are presented with but also the rewards that come with the job.
“You can have a lot of fun with the media if you approach it the right way…the rewarding thing is when you see people accomplish things on their own,” said Kelley.
In reference to players speaking to the media he said, “You’re walking into a lion’s cage and you need to make that lion entertain the masses.”
Kelley said when players achieve skills off the field it is rewarding because he knew at some point everything he had been doing to coach them on how to address issues properly, they had been listening.