Communication Central

How communication with others--and ourselves--leads to success.

How to Handle a PR Crisis: Kobe Bryant, the Lakers, and the NBA

Words can deeply affect and offend others.

After receiving a technical foul in the third quarter of a game against the San Antonio Spurs (April 12), Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant lashed out at referee Bennie Adams with a curse word and a homophobic slur. As you can reason, Bryant's comments brought about a lot of unwanted attention to himself, the Lakers organization and to the league.

Ironically, the NBA had already paired with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network (GLSEN) and had filmed a Public Service Announcement with Grant Hill that same day for their "Think Before you Speak" campaign.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to criticize Kobe Bryant for his outburst. I would be a hypocrite if I were to act as if I have never used foul language or called someone a name while playing a sport. I want to discuss how Kobe Bryant, the Lakers organization and the league handled the incident afterward.

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Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant could have confronted this issue in many ways. Since there was no audio and only video of his "comments" he could have denied what he was accused of. Bryant could have refused to address the media or issue any statement at all. He could have spoken through his PR team and through social media sites such as Twitter. Bryant also could have tried to address representatives of the affected parties such as GLAAD, GLSEN, etc., and then refused further comment.

Bryant, instead, chose to go on the offensive. He admitted his mistake, contacted different organizations to apologize and made personal statements to the media to assuage tense feelings and to express his regret concerning his remarks.

On the Dan Patrick Show, Bryant stated:

"It was just stupid and ignorant...In this situation seeing how many people were affected, it helps you understand the weight that comes from that word...That's why it's very important for me to communicate how sorry I am to use that word."

I think this was the right approach. He owned up to his actions, made attempts to redress the harm and promised not to use the language again and to use his influence to convince others to stop using homophobic slurs.

Now, I would never tell anyone what to do with their money so my next point is influenced by this. Further, I also recognize that the average public (including me) is pretty flippant about the income of professional athletes and can easily (and falsely) reason that thousands of dollars means very little to them. But in reference to Kobe Bryant contesting the $100,000 fine levied by the league, from a public relations standpoint, I think he should have accepted it and moved on. It would further demonstrate his regret and willingness to accept responsibility for his actions.

Los Angeles Lakers  

John Black, spokesman for the Lakers, issued this statement:

"What happened in Tuesday night's game is not representative of what the Lakers stand for. We want to reaffirm our commitment to all our fans and our appreciation for the support we receive from all segments of society."

"We also understand the importance of positive messages in helping us convey this. We appreciate the input we've received from GLAAD the past two days and will look forward to working with them on ways to help educate ourselves and our fans, and to help keep language like this out of our game (ESPN 2011)."

I believe the team acted swiftly in their response and in fact, went a step beyond. They did not have to team up with GLAAD, which is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, as most media coverage seemed to focus on Kobe Bryant and his actions and how the league would respond. I think the Lakers handled the situation superbly.

NBA and Commissioner David Stearn

David Stearn charged in front of the incident and was also very proactive in how he dealt with the issue. He didn't allow days to pass. He didn't close ranks and launch a multi-month investigation into the event (e.g., Brett Favre). Instead, he levied a swift disciplinary measure that demonstrated to players, coaches, fans, activists, news media and on-lookers that the NBA would not condone homophobic remarks. Read his statement below from NBA.com.

NEW YORK - NBA Commissioner David Stern issued the following statement today:

"Kobe Bryant's comment during last night's game was offensive and inexcusable. While I'm fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000. Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society (NBA.com, 2011)."

Final Thoughts

All parties involved seemed to handle a difficult issue professionally. Although the comments were unfortunate, the incident did allow all of us an opportunity to further think about how our words can deeply affect and offend others. I hope the discussions brought up by this will continue.

Bakari Akil II, Ph.D., is the author of Speech Boot Camp and it is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Pop Psychology and Psychology from all Angles.

You can also visit him at his blog, Sports Speech.

Bakari Akil II, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communication at Florida State College of Jacksonville.

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