Presenting a positive image to the masses has become increasingly important with the rise of social media, technology, and the ever scrutinizing public eye. This fact is especially true for professional sports leagues. On Friday morning May 1st, Philadelphia Union forward and 2011 Major League Soccer (MLS) Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong was arrested on charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence. Immediately following the incident, MLS released the following statement:
Sapong will undergo an assessment by MLS’ Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (“SABH”) Program doctors pursuant to the SABH Policy. He will not be eligible to participate in any competition until that assessment is complete, he is cleared for participation by the SABH Program doctors, and Major League Soccer completes its investigation.
The SABH has almost never been brought to the public’s attention. The incredibly swift action taken by the league indicates that MLS is serious about protecting its image and the well-being of its players.
Compared to the NFL, MLB, and even the NBA, MLS and its athletes project a positive image. Domestic abuse has plagued the NFL for several years, and has since been magnified when Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson were suspended this past season. Major League Baseball has combated steroid use for the better part of two decades, and the NBA, along with the NFL, has had to deal with drug use among its athletes as well as weapons charges. When athletes commit these acts, the league must immediately perform damage control to preserve the image that the league truly wants to create positive role models for future generations.
Negative incidents like these occur fairly regularly in major American sports leagues. Since the league’s inception, MLS has had few incidents compared to its counterparts. New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Jon Conway and defender Jeff Parke were both suspended for testing positive for a banned substance in 2008. New England Revolution midfielder Shalrie Joseph entered the league’s SABH in 2010, most likely due to marijuana use. Joseph made headlines again in 2011 when he was fined $1,000 during a preseason training when he refused to leave the team hotel when police were called to break up a hotel party that was disturbing other hotel guests. Joseph and teammate Kevin Alston were asked to leave camp early and flew back to Boston. And Wednesday May 6th news broke that former player and current assistant coach of Real Salt Lake, Andy Williams, has been suspended indefinitely, pending an investigation for being arrested on DUI charges, and will voluntarily enter into SABH treatment. Aside from these and a few other smaller incidents, the list is short compared to the other major professional sports leagues in the US.
MLS, as the other major sports leagues do as well, wants to make its matches events that appeal to all audiences, including families, which means they must provide a family-friendly environment. In 2013, the league pressured the supporters group of the New York Red Bulls to stop chanting “You suck a—hole” when the goalkeeper puts the ball in play. The chant could be heard during television broadcasts and is heard clearly at stadiums. The chant could disturb families with young children at the match. This past weekend, New York City FC fans were caught chanting a Spanish slang word at Seattle Sounders. The Yankee organization had already laid out guidelines for expected behavior of supporters groups at Yankee Stadium. These rules are designed to create an atmosphere which reflect the clean-cut persona of the New York Yankees.
The league has also made strategic sponsorships that target families and children. The league forged partnerships with Johnson & Johnson as well as Mondelez, one of the world’s largest snack food companies. Both companies show the league’s dedication to families and young children.
The efficiency in which the league handled Sapong’s transgression shows that the league office has learned from the mistakes of other American sports leagues (let’s not forget, Don Garber worked in the NFL for several years before becoming MLS commissioner). Casual fans will not support a league that does not create a positive image. MLS knows that in order for customers to buy the product they also must believe in the brand.