Shaun White thrilled his countrymen, including me, with a sparkling final run to win his third Olympic gold medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe. Unfortunately, he also disappointed many of his countrymen by failing to own responsibility for his sexual misconduct as alleged in 2016 by a female member of his band.
Few American athletes, and certainly even fewer winter Olympians, have scaled as high of a mountain of success and acclaim as White. He is credited with putting skateboarding on the athletic map and turning his particular event into a breathtaking spectacle of big air and jaw-dropping spins.
In the gleaming light of his success on the halfpipe, White shone less brightly in his post-event interview at which he dismissed the sexual misconduct allegations as “gossip.”
Still basking in the limelight, White had a mulligan to get it right the next morning when he was interviewed on NBC’s Today show by Savannah Guthrie. He didn’t get out of the rough. Guthrie gave him a wide lane by asking if he had anything further to say about the allegation. White expressed regret for his “gossip” comment, in what appeared to be a scripted moment. Guthrie pressed him ever so gently to say something about the sexual misconduct allegation itself. All White could muster was that he has changed. No mention of the woman he allegedly harassed.
White undoubtedly had been prepped by his legal counsel. He should have sought advice from a reputation counselor. White will never have a grander moment to apologize. That would have made him not only king of the hill, but also a man willing to admit his fault, even as he is celebrated for his greatness.
You could call it a mountainous missed opportunity.
Unquestionably White’s legacy as an Olympic great will remain. But his reputation as a man could have soared along with that legacy if he bucked the trend of other accused men and owned his misconduct. If White had, the issue would have faded into the shadows instead of continuing to dog him as he contemplates participating in newly authorized 2020 Summer Olympic skateboarding and possibly yet another winter Olympic try in 2022. He apparently failed to call upon any female reporters at his post-victory press conference, which will be hard to sustain going forward.
Preserving a reputation has an Olympic quality of requiring discipline and courage. If it was easy, no one would have a bad reputation, unless like Charlie Sheen you cultivated one. White passed the test of athletic discipline and courage with literally flying colors. Too bad, he crash-landed on a test of his maturity and manhood. White is great. He could have been even greater.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.