Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o share a dubious distinction: They are the least-liked athletes in the U.S., a recent Nielsen/E-poll found. It’s a dead heat, in fact.
That’s where the similarities between a veteran cyclist and college linebacker end.
“The two are not mutually exclusive, aside from the timing,” said Gregory Lee Hendricks, a sports PR guy in Chicago. “If the Manti scandal didn’t break at the same time as Lance Armstrong, they would not be in the same breath.”
Despite their differences, both athletes appeal to an abysmal 15 percent of Americans, putting them atop the list of the most-disliked athletes in sports.
The athletes who made this list reveal the curious collective psyche of sports fans. Athletes such as Armstrong and Te’o did something to earn their lousy reputations. Armstrong cheated and Te’o fell victim to an elaborate hoax, or so he claims.
Then there are athletes whom the public dislikes because, well, just because.
“You have your athletes who are currently embroiled in a scandal,” Hendricks said, “and then you just have your punching bags.”
The punching bags on the list include two NFL quarterbacks: Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys’ starting QB. “Tony Romo hasn’t been in a scandal,” said Hendricks. “He just plays for a team people hate.”
As for Cutler, he makes pouty faces, huffs and puffs on the sidelines occasionally, and every so often directs an F-bomb at his hometown fans. Those actions don’t amount to a career-ending scandal, but they also do little to help his personal brand.
Too bad for Cutler, because athletes must be aware of their brands, said Hendricks.
According to Aaron Perlut, an athlete’s brand is important because it boosts his or her earning power. Perlut is managing partner of St. Louis-based digital marketing and public relations agency Elasticity. His client roster has included sports teams.
“What some athletes fail to understand is that what they represent goes far beyond them as an individual,” he said. “If they endeavor to earn beyond their salaries they get from their respective team, it requires the building of a personal brand. That brand is built upon a foundation of image as well as athletic achievement.”
How to get off this list
For Te’o and Armstrong to rebuild their brands, they must follow different roads to redemption, said Hendricks, who is executive vice president at Matter, Edelman Sports and Entertainment.
“Lance will have to be completely sincere and transparent moving forward,” he said. “He’ll have to work hard. Lance’s scandal—and the way he handled it—was so egregious, it is going to take a lot of contrition and good work to recover his image.”
Te’o, on the other hand, needs to win. “Winning smooths stuff over,” said Hendricks.
Of course, some scandals persist even after the athlete is victorious. Cases in point: Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, both of whom are on the list of most-disliked players. For other sports stars, though, winning is a solid recipe for staying off the list.
Take Ray Lewis, for example. The Baltimore Ravens linebacker was charged with murder in 2000. The charges were later reduced to obstruction of justice after Lewis testified against two other defendants. Thirteen years later, he’s helped win a Super Bowl for Baltimore. Between that and his contrition, Lewis is practically a saint in the city.
“If you’re embroiled in a scandal, be contrite, and win, and move forward,” Hendricks said.
As for the punching bags on the list, winning may not help. Disliking players and rival teams is part of the fun of sports, according to Hendricks.
“The rivalries and intense passion [are] a great thing about sports,” he said. “It helps create legends, just like winning helps create legends.”
Here’s the top 10 list, along with the percentage of Americans to which each athlete appeals. The list includes only active athletes with at least 10 percent awareness among the public. Forbes, which first reported on the Nielsen poll, put Armstrong at No. 1 because of his broader name recognition. We’ll do the same:
1. Lance Armstrong (15 percent)
2. Manti Te’o (15 percent)
3. Tiger Woods (19 percent)
4. Jay Cutler (21 percent)
5. Metta World Peace (21 percent)
6. Alex Rodriguez (22 percent)
7. Michael Vick (23 percent)
8. Kurt Busch (27 percent)
9. Kobe Bryant (27 percent)
10. Tony Romo (27 percent)