Tom Brady’s first appearance after the release of the Wells report came Thursday night in front of a friendly Salem State University crowd that could not have been kinder to him.
No, he contended, he had not had time to fully digest the report. Yes, he will address it — “hopefully soon.” Is the Super Bowl tainted? “Absolutely not.”
The crowd cheered Brady — a stark contrast to the reaction to him farther from home in the wake of the NFL report on Deflategate.
From coast to coast, they’re calling the champion a cheater. Read all about it.
“Tom Brady can no longer be considered the greatest quarterback of all-time, just as Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds are no longer in the conversation as the greatest baseball player who ever lived,’’ Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi wrote.
Listen to it, from the radio talk squawkers. “The guy cheated,’’ Chris Russo shrieked on his Sirius XM channel, Mad Dog Radio.
Never mind that Theodore V. Wells Jr., who spearheaded the NFL’s investigation into the Deflategate scandal, stopped short in his report of calling Brady a cheater. The damage has been done to TB12 and endangers a brand that has made him millions in endorsement income.
After 15 years of all but unsullied celebrity as the pitch-perfect voice of New England’s football team, the four-time Super Bowl champion faces the first major public relations crisis of his career.
Now, when consumers consider Brady-endorsed footwear, will they think UGG or UGH? And, if so, for how long?
“In the short term, a dirty bomb just went off right above Brady’s fancy house and he’s going to be radioactive for the next four to six months,’’ said Darren Marshall, executive vice president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency. “Potential sponsors aren’t going to take his call, and he’s just got to hunker down and get through this.’’
In the longer term, Marshall said, “He’s probably going to be fine. We’re a nation of second chances and relatively short memories.’’
This is unfamiliar turf for Brady, despite his long history of overcoming disbelievers, from the high school and college coaches who failed to embrace him to the NFL talent scouts who let him dangle in the 2000 draft until he was selected in the sixth round, behind 198 other players.
Brady generally has navigated unscathed through previous Patriots scandals while rising to the highest echelon of the nation’s marketable sports celebrities. Forbes last year listed his endorsement income from the likes of UGG, Movado, and Dodge at $7 million, and he was ranked with Peyton Manning last month by New York-based Q Scores as sharing the highest consumer appeal rating among NFL players.
“It doesn’t look like any of Deflategate stuff affected his appeal, at least until the investigative report came out,’’ said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores. “Now we will see how he responds to the allegations.’’
Brady is not Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback who went to prison for his role in a deadly dog fighting ring. He is not Ray Rice, the NFL running back who last year was videotaped punching his fiancee. He is not Adrian Peterson, another NFL running back, who last year was charged with physically abusing his 4-year-old son.
But he stands accused by an NFL-commissioned investigator of playing at least a passive role while two low-level Patriots workers allegedly subverted the integrity of his sport by improperly deflating balls that he threw in a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game that advanced the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
How Brady responds to the first major public relations crisis of his career could determine the quality of his image for years. He did not address the specifics of the allegations during an appearance Thursday night at Salem State College, though his agent, Don Yee, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft had each attacked the investigative findings.
Several specialists in celebrity crisis management cautioned against Brady joining the counterattack.
“Many athletes in the modern era have made mistakes and worse, and in a lot of those situations they have been able to rehabilitate themselves by showing contrition and telling the truth,’’ said Michael Gordon, the principal of Group Gordon, a New York crisis and communications firm. “If Brady holes up and pretends nothing has happened, it would hurt him more in the long run.’’
No one speculated that Brady’s sponsors will abandon him, as several sponsors did with Lance Armstrong when the cyclist’s doping scandal broke. A spokeswoman for UGG Australia did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’re not talking about some of the more heinous things that many professional athletes have engaged in,’’ said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. “I would expect that some of his sponsors will get a little concerned about a backlash, but I don’t expect any of them to walk away from him.’’
An April consumer survey by The Marketing Arm of Dallas showed Brady ranked relatively low in trustworthiness, though Matt Delzell, the company’s managing director of celebrity talent acquisition, said the results were most likely a reflection of the public’s generally low opinion of the character of players in the scandal-plagued NFL.
The firm’s next survey is scheduled for July. “Let’s pay very close attention to Brady’s trust numbers then,’’ Delzell said.
Chris Cakebread, a professor of advertising at Boston University’s College of Communication, suggested Brady’s personal history may smile on him as he strives to protect his reputation.
“He has had such a positive, squeaky-clean, and successful image for so long that I don’t think it’s going to a do a whole lot of damage to his brand,’’ Cakebread said. “I certainly don’t think it will hurt him long-term because he’s got such a great legacy and that’s never going to change.’’
However, the worst be could yet to come for Brady, as the NFL weighs possible disciplinary action against him. The Patriots risk losing Brady to a suspension of one or more games.
“If he gets a slap on the wrist, I think the situation will finally go away,’’ Cakebread said. “If it’s so serious that he gets suspended, then it could hurt him and the team.’’
Either way, much will depend on Brady’s reaction to the allegations.
While some crisis specialists said they would advise him to accept a measure of responsibility and seize his second chance, others believe he should maintain a low profile and let his surrogates defend him.
“He needs to let the heat die down,’’ Ganis said. “He should go to Bora Bora with his beautiful wife and family for a while and not pay attention to the feeding frenzy.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.