Two of Australia’s biggest sports stars are set to return to the field of play after absences enforced by bad behaviour, captured and amplified on social media.
Footscray’s blond mullet poster boy, Bailey Smith — who has the AFL’s largest social media following and a high-profile brand ambassadorship with Cotton On — returns on Saturday from a ban for being pictured with a ‘white substance’ (the current media code for cocaine).
Meanwhile, Collingwood’s Jordan De Goey is eligible to play — once recovered from injury — for the first time since the emergence of a video in a Bali party bar, Motel Mexicola, of De Goey attempting to expose a female friend’s breast, which followed an earlier harassment conviction in New York over another nightclub incident.
Both players and clubs apologised for the incidents, with markedly different outcomes despite some similarities in circumstances. This is partially due to one player nailing his initial apology while the other fumbled (which commonly requires the issuing of additional apologies — always a bad look).
When the pictures of Smith first emerged, the club and player responded quickly with coordinated statements. Significantly, Smith unreservedly apologised, accepted all blame, admitted to the “illicit substance” and stated he was deeply ashamed.
“I do not have an excuse for those behaviours,” he said. “However the state of my mental health over that period post Grand Final dramatically deteriorated, and I spiralled out of control leading to poor decision making… I have made mistakes, but I resolve to learn from each."
The media and social media response was overwhelmingly positive, even portraying Smith as a role model for young people facing challenges. Cotton On confirmed he would be retained as an ambassador.
Footscray expressed understanding of the pressures Smith had faced and said “this clearly does not excuse his behaviour, [but] it is our responsibility as a Club to ensure we have supported, and we continue to support, Bailey’s health and wellbeing”.
In contrast, when De Goey’s video went viral, his initial response was deflecting blame and attacking the media. He posted on Instagram:
“I want to openly address the relentless pursuit and persecution of athletes by the media to create an uneducated, bias and ill-informed narrative that has gone too far […] this will end in tragedy if no one speaks up. It’s time for change. #enoughisenough.”
He then issued a more contrite apology: “I had worked hard this year to establish trust and confidence in me to make better decisions and through no one’s fault but my own, I have undone that trust.
“Late last year, I was diagnosed with ADHD and I am trying to become more aware of why I make [the] mistakes that I do. I have again made a mistake — this is an ongoing journey for me — and I remain absolutely committed to changing.”
The perception De Goey was using ADHD as an excuse created a bigger backlash — from mental health and domestic violence groups, even the AFL’s chief. Collingwood withdrew its offer of a new $800,000 a year playing contract.
Then came a third statement, via a video released by the club, where De Goey, slouched on a couch, stated he had “waited to have a clear mind to apologise” and that “ADHD is not an excuse for my behaviour”.
Interestingly, given the sympathetic response to Smith’s mental health struggles, influential commentators called him a ‘boofhead’ and footy expert Caroline Wilson said “frankly, I’ve had a gutful of players referring to their mental health problems every time they get into trouble”.
De Goey’s football talent means he is likely to play on, but his already embattled reputation is unlikely to fully recover and his earning (especially marketing) power will be significantly diminished.
The lesson for individuals, corporates and crisis experts is clear: carefully consider your initial steps and messaging, and where appropriate apologise unreservedly and identify remedial actions. In a crisis, correct first responses are critical.
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