They say America is a land of second chances.
Very much true, especially if you have talent. In sports the ability to perform and draw people pretty much trumps everything, which is why Plaxico Burress can expect to find work in the NFL this season – assuming there is a season – once he steps out of an upstate New York prison on June 6 after serving nearly 21 months on a gun rap.
Burress' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is already tweeting about his pending release, telling the world that Burress is healthy and in great shape (naturally). With a successful return, Burress would join Michael Vick (conspiracy related to a dog fighting ring), Donte' Stallworth (DUI manslaughter) and Tank Johnson (illegal weapons possession, among other offenses on his rap sheet) as ex-cons back playing for pay on Sundays. While some people will always object (wrong message, bad examples for our youth), talented athletes with criminal records usually get a chance to get back to the game. Pro sports are about winning, and talent is talent. And once a man has paid his debt to society, why shouldn't he be allowed to resume his living, whether he's a ballplayer or a house painter?
Still, it gets tricky. Organizations often feel the need to grease the public relations wheels before welcoming a convicted criminal into the fold. In most cases coaches and other team officials will spend a lot of time with the player before making the leap to sign him, gauging how committed he is to turning things around. Once they do sign him, it becomes important to then support him 100 percent, says Melinda Travis, head of PR firm Pro Sports Communications, which handles reputation management and crisis communications in the sports industry.
"If you're his team, you want to communicate and instill in the public the same confidence in him that you've gained," says Travis. And of course there are few things better than getting him involved in the community, doing good works. Vick has jumped into animal rights work, but he's done it without a lot of fanfare, lest he invite cynicism that it's all for show. Better to let the reputation heal gradually, PR pros generally advise.
Another athlete with a record who's out there competing: former track star Marion Jones, who served six months for obstruction of justice during a 2007 steroids probe. She's now playing for the WNBA's Tulsa Shock, providing the struggling league with some publicity.
Non-team sport athletes don't have the advantages of organizations standing behind them during image rehab – they're basically on their own. At least jockeys benefit from the relative anonymity they enjoy – their horses are usually far more famous. The successful Australian jockey Chris Munce, who did 20 months after getting caught up in a betting tip scandal, climbed back in the saddle in 2008. And boxers don't exactly shock anyone when they break the law. In fact, a bad boy image can work in their favor. James Kirkland, a talented light middleweight, was convicted of armed robbery in 2003, then busted on a firearms charge while still on probation in 2009.
For those who want to demonstrate they've changed, "it takes work," says Travis. "Enlist some professional help, because it's difficult to do on your own."