Critical crisis lessons from the recent NBA and MLB scandals

A tale of two scandals — and two crisis responses.

A tale of two crisis communications situations

Edward Moed is CEO at Hot Paper Lantern.

Two seismic scandals recently rocked the global sports landscape, shaking the MLB and NBA fandoms and sparking a frenzy of concerns and speculation across the media. Amid the chaos, these incidents shined a bright light on questions around handling extreme crisis communications and navigating ethical dilemmas in the face of uncertainty.

In the MLB, Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, was fired by the Dodgers in March following allegations of embezzling millions of dollars from Ohtani to cover gambling debts. Just days later, in the NBA, Jontay Porter’s involvement in unauthorized betting and divulging confidential information cast a shadow over the league’s integrity.



The two leagues diverged in their crisis communications strategies, with one emerging as the clear victor. However, both approaches offer invaluable lessons for leaders and organizations in the sports industry and beyond. Below, I delve into the key takeaways, emphasizing the importance of establishing a “north star,” crisis management planning and effective communication – elements that can either make or break brand reputation.

Define your north star and stay true to it

Leagues bear the responsibility of safeguarding their integrity to maintain trust among fans and stakeholders. The NBA’s swift and transparent response to the Porter scandal stands as a testament to this commitment. Its public statement read: “There is nothing more important than protecting the integrity of NBA competition for our fans, our teams and everyone associated with our sport, which is why Jontay Porter’s blatant violations of our gaming rules are being met with the most severe punishment.” The league clearly demonstrated its dedication to its core principles, notably its “north star” of upholding integrity, instilling trust among its stakeholders.

In contrast, the MLB’s delayed and inadequate reaction to statements from Shohei Ohtani and his interpreter allowed speculation to thrive. Ohtani’s representatives initially indicated he had transferred money to help with Mizuhara’s gambling debts, but later disavowed Mizuhara’s account, asserting Ohtani was a victim of theft.

This discrepancy underscores the vital need for leagues and other organizations to establish a clear “north star” that guides decision-making, whether it centers on integrity, stakeholder well-being, or transparency. That north star becomes indispensable in times of crisis; it provides stability, clarity, and demonstrates principled leadership. When an organization loses its north star, it loses its fandom.

Establish your authority and master your domain

In this scenario, the NBA exemplified authority and crisis control at its finest. With quick, transparent action and immediate consequences, it tackled the issue head-on, eliminating ambiguity and speculation. Even amidst challenging circumstances involving one of its star players, the NBA maintained control of the narrative.

Conversely, the MLB’s delayed response to the Ohtani situation allowed rumors to spiral out of control, waiting two days to issue any statement. By failing to intervene early, the MLB jeopardized its standing as an authoritative and credible voice in the matter.

In times of crisis, it’s essential for leagues and other organizations to assert themselves as the primary source of information and authority. As a result, fans and consumers of the media will feel inclined to rely on accurate and timely updates, fostering trust and confidence in the organization’s ability to handle the situation effectively. This proactive stance not only safeguards their reputation but also reinforces their credibility as stewards of the sport.

Have a crisis communications strategy ready to go

No one  knows when a crisis will hit. However, the responses to both scandals highlighted the importance of having a comprehensive communication strategy in place – one that involves a well-defined plan      equipped to gather facts, make informed decisions, and transparently communicate with the public. The MLB’s delayed and disjointed response to the Shohei Ohtani situation exposed the repercussions of lacking such a strategy. By having a robust crisis communication plan ready to go, organizations can mitigate the impact of challenges and uphold their integrity in the eyes of stakeholders and the public.

Looking ahead, the rise of  sports betting undoubtedly forecasts more challenges for the leagues. Yet, these issues aren’t new (think Chicago Blackhawks lawsuit or the Pete Rose investigation), and therefore underscore the timeless need for crisis management and integrity in sports. Leagues must hold fast to their core values, prioritizing integrity, asserting authority and having crisis communication plans in place. Ultimately, the crucial question persists: Will leagues prioritize trust in their foundational principles, or will they yield to the influence of star power? In the end, it’s the fans who determine the victor, and spoiler: they usually opt for integrity.


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