Effective crisis communication aimed at minimizing the unfavorable consequences of some parties’ mistakes is critically important in professional sports. To support fair competition, ensure the presence of equal opportunity, and gain spectators’ trust, it is essential to promote ethical norms and implement regulations to ensure the integrity of professional athletes, teams, and sports managers. This paper discusses crisis communication in one of the most famous sports gambling scandals of the twentieth century – the case of Pete Rose.
In the middle of the 1980s, Pete Rose, the winner of multiple awards, including the MLB MVP, the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, and the Rookie of the Year, finished his career as a professional player (Caminker and Chemerinsky; Ramshaw and Gammon 219). After making that decision, he took on the responsibilities of the Cincinnati Reds’ sports manager to continue supporting his hometown team and was quite successful in that role until 1989 when the gambling scandal took place. Rumors regarding his gambling activities created a crisis that required Major League Baseball (MLB) to react accordingly.
In the case of Pete Rose, crisis communication was focused on establishing facts, communicating them to the public, and taking disciplinary actions to maintain the reputation of the team and professional baseball in general. In 1989, after a series of accusations against Pete Rose related to his alleged participation in gambling activities and even betting on baseball games played by his team, baseball authorities started the official investigation (Noble). John Dowd, a former FBI employee, was responsible for collecting and evaluating the evidence against Pete Rose, as well as questioning the former player to consider his comments during the analysis phase (Noble). The investigator’s work resulted in the so-called Dowd report released in June 1989. It was a 285-page document that included the statements of nine witnesses confirming that Rose had bet on the Cincinnati Reds in 1987 and the following years (Noble). The released document also included the player’s betting records dated 1987, copies of betting slips and paychecks, and some transcripts of telephone communication revealing Rose’s gambling activity (Noble).
The things that are completely right in MLB’s communication plan include carefully checking facts and conducting necessary evidence analysis procedures before making official statements regarding the need for disciplinary actions. For instance, to make sure that evidence against Pete Rose had not been fabricated by evil-wishers, the betting slips were added to the case materials only after undergoing graphological expertise (Noble). Continuing on the positive aspects of MLB’s performance, the organization’s determination to find evidence that Rose had bet on his team was specifically important since, without such evidence, MLB would only be able to implement a one-year suspension from baseball (Caminker and Chemerinsky; Noble).
Continuing on the positive things, it is also worthy of note that MLB did not prevent Rose from providing comments on the issue. Nevertheless, Rose did not have much to say and just kept denying any facts from the Dowd report (Noble). After getting evidence to confirm Rose’s violations of ethical rules, MLB authorities were going to follow standard procedures and professionally conduct communication. Among other things, the strategy included providing the accused person with the opportunity to give explanations and defend his reputation in any meaningful way. Thus, following the completion of the Dowd report, Angelo Giamatti, the Commissioner of MLB of that time, was going to organize a formal hearing to discuss the evidence and come up with a decision, but Rose simply refused to attend it (Noble).
It does not seem that MLB committed any serious mistakes in responding to the reputational threat, but there are still things about the investigation to be improved. Most importantly, to avoid any reputational losses, it would be better to encourage some disinterested parties to critically evaluate the evidence before making public accusations. Instead of attending a hearing with Giamatti to present their viewpoint, Rose’s lawyers made attempts to prevent it and demanded judicial independence by asking Judge Norbert Nadel to conduct the hearing and decide whether there was enough evidence to consider a permanent suspension from baseball (Noble). Judge Nadel criticized Giamatti for being prejudiced towards Rose; however, in the final resolution discussed on TV in August 1989, Rose fully recognized Giamatti’s authority to make decisions in his case and accepted being included in the MLB ineligible list (“Top News Story August 24, 1989”). Thus, the decision to attract independent professionals to re-assess the evidence would probably prevent unnecessary delays in decision-making.
If I were the MLB Commissioner and had to make the decision, I would do what MLB did in the case but with a few minor changes. First of all, I would increase the perceived credibility of the evidence against Rose by inviting disinterested third parties to assess it to avoid any accusations from Rose’s lawyers and the escalation of the scandal. Next, despite implementing a permanent ban for violating rule 21, I would leave Rose eligible for participating in the MLB Hall of Fame elections. Rose’s gambling activity does not cancel his actual achievements as a player and even as a sports manager. In particular, there is no evidence that Rose has ever bet against his team to suppose that he organized matches of convenience to raise money or affected the results of his team’s games to gain extra benefits (Noble). Considering the absence of such evidence, I would not make attempts to erase Pete Rose’s name from the history of MLB and professional baseball.
The media coverage of the case of Rose and its impact on his fans is another topic of interest. Modern research articles suggest that Rose remains “a local legend” in Cincinnati despite the case and subsequent scandals focusing on his inappropriate behaviors in public, sexual relationships with a teenager, and income tax evasion (Ramshaw and Gammon 218). In 1989, despite reputational losses in the professional community and accusations from bookies, including Ron Peters, Rose still had his fans’ support (Noble). For instance, Rose’s fans were quite strong in their belief in Pete’s innocence and were happy to learn about Judge Nadel’s preliminary decision regarding Giamatti’s overuse of decision-making power (Noble). Strongly worded statements in the media, including Pete Rose being called “a sick gambler” by Ron Peters, attracted public attention to the case of Rose (Noble). However, it remained the issue of one particular individual since Rose was the only accused person related to the Cincinnati Reds. Therefore, it would be an exaggeration to say that Rose’s performance and mistakes destroyed the entire team’s reputation, resulting in significant difficulties in gaining sponsorship.
To sum up, the case of Pete Rose, who is still regarded as one of the most successful professional baseball players, deserves close attention. It is because it illustrates the way of how being involved in unethical practices results in being banned from engaging in further professional activities and leaves a non-erasable stain on a person’s professional reputation. Additionally, the history of violating ethical rules severely affects the degree to which a person’s previous individual achievements are recognized as legitimate and deserving to be celebrated.
Caminker, Evan, and Erwin Chemerinsky. “Pete Rose Has Done His Time.” The New York Times, 2020. Web.
Noble, Greg. “Dowd Report: All the Hit King’s Men and the Fall of Pete Rose.” WCPO, 2018. Web.
Ramshaw, Gregory, and Sean Gammon. “Difference, Dissonance, and Redemption in Sport Heritage: Interpreting the Tangled Legacy of Pete Rose at Two Museums.” Journal of Heritage Tourism, vol. 15, no. 2, 2020, pp. 217-227.
“Top News Story August 24, 1989.” YouTube, uploaded by Sterling Rutherford, 2017. Web.