'Fess up or fight? Accused confront difficult decision

Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, after a weekend of silence, chose to fall on his sword.

He had been named as a steroid user in the Mitchell Report released by Major League Baseball last week, and though the evidence against him amounted to hearsay - the word of a former teammate - Roberts came forward with a confession.

He had used steroids one time, he said. He knew it had been a mistake, and now all he could do was ask the public for forgiveness. He hoped, in time, that this would not define him.

Aside from the four days he decided to stay silent, it was a textbook example of how marketing experts, image consultants and legal analysts say an athlete should respond to allegations that can define his legacy. If you're guilty, confess what you can without putting yourself in legal jeopardy, apologize, be contrite and ask for forgiveness.

"America is a forgiving nation," said Darren Prince, CEO of The Prince Marketing group, a firm that has helped rehabilitate the image of troubled celebrities such as Dennis Rodman and Anna Nicole Smith. "If you're guilty, the first thing we tell clients is to come out and admit it. ... If you're honest about it, people are eventually going to forgive. The next big story in sports is always right around the corner."

The debate over whether an athlete should confess, stay silent or fight to clear his name has been playing out in private and on the front pages since the 409-page Mitchell Report was released. While some players such as Roberts and New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who confessed to using human growth hormone, decided to concede at least partial guilt, others have taken the opposite tack.

Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, labeled a steroid user in the Mitchell Report by his former personal trainer, chose the Barry Bonds approach yesterday: an angry, forceful denial.

"I want to state clearly and without qualification: I did not take steroids, human growth hormone or any other banned substances at any time in my baseball career or, in fact, my entire life," Clemens said in a statement released by his attorney.

Should we believe someone like Clemens? Should we forgive someone like Roberts? The answer to each question is most likely personal. It also depends on their actions in the past as well as in the future. Roberts' contrition, as well as his sterling reputation in the community for his work with the Children's Hospital at the University of Maryland, will help the way people view him.

Roberts is a spokesman for Apple Ford in Columbia, the Baltimore metro area's largest Ford dealership, and that relationship apparently isn't changing after his steroid admission.

"Brian has done a fantastic job for Apple," said Roger Caplan, president of the Caplan Group, which represents Apple. "He's a wonderful spokesperson and an upstanding, good person."

Roberts receives a financial package from Apple, which includes a Ford F-150 Harley-Davidson model truck, and in turn does TV, radio and print ads and makes a few public appearances each year.

Apple's president, Chip Doetsch, has served on the board of the Children's Hospital with Roberts and has been impressed with the dedication and compassion the second baseman has shown, Caplan said.

So, Caplan said, Apple never considered severing ties with Roberts, "because he made one mistake."

It seemed obvious, however, that Roberts had consulted with legal counsel before coming forward and issuing a carefully worded statement of one-time admission, said Norman Samnick, an attorney with Bryan Cave LLP who represents professional athletes and negotiates endorsement contracts.

"If an athlete doesn't consult with a lawyer, they're a fool," Samnick said. "You need to first find out the ramifications. Ask someone, 'How am I going to be affected if I admit to doing this stuff?' ... I always tell people to pay the nickel now and talk to your lawyer as opposed to paying him $100,000 after the fact."

For someone like Roberts - as long as there are no legal repercussions for using or possessing steroids - a confession isn't likely to stick with him forever, Samnick said.

"If he's got a halo around his head most of the time, it's going to affect him a lot less than it will a guy who is a rascal," Samnick said.

The fact that Roberts came forward despite little evidence - he was mentioned in the Mitchell Report based only on former teammate Larry Bigbie's recollection that Roberts had told him he used steroids - gives him credibility, said Mathew Bodie, professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law and expert on sports labor issues.

"I was surprised to hear him admit it because the evidence was extremely thin," Bodie said. "Very surprised. In that way, I guess it's a good that he admitted it because there wasn't an array of evidence that was forcing him to admit it."

When an athlete is forceful with his denials, as Clemens was, it might not matter in the eyes of corporate America. Sometimes, perception becomes reality.

"If you look at Barry Bonds' situation, not one company attached their brand to him during the chase for the home run title," said Darin Perry, the director of sponsorship consulting with Millsport, a sports marketing firm.

Roberts, however, can easily make people forgive and even forget his steroid use, Perry said.

"The next step for him will be to continue to be in the public eye, speaking out against it," Perry said. "The more he says, 'I did wrong and I want to move forward,' the faster the public will forgive him. ... If the person is a good person, society will forgive them, and so will corporate America. Consumers relate to athletes more when they know they're human."