Pete Rose is my role model. Mike Tyson is my mentor. O.J. Simpson is my spiritual guide. In fact, everything I ever needed to know—about how to live and whom to trust and how to treat other people—I learned not in kindergarten but from Kobe. "Anyone can point to Ray Lewis or Rae Carruth or Mark Gastineau and say, 'What a knucklehead,' " says Mike Paul, a public-relations professional who specializes in crisis- and reputation-management. "But why not look at these guys and ask, 'Where am I falling short, and what can I learn from them?' "
And so your child's most important preschool instructor may well be Janet Jackson. "We teach kids even before kindergarten that no true apology has an if or a but in it," says Paul, counselor and confidant to countless professional athletes through his New York City-based firm, MGP & Associates PR. "After the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson said, in essence, 'I'm sorry, but I didn't do anything wrong.' Justin Timberlake said, 'I apologize if I offended anyone.' They're not taking responsibility."
Paul is not wanting for potential clients this week, what with the Hindenburging reputations of La Salle basketball, Miami football and NBA mercenary Carlos Boozer. Your sports section, in a strange way, is a daily self-help manual, the only guru you will ever need. Kobe rhymes with Obi-Wan Kenobi. The lone-wolf Lakers guard teaches us that the only thing more dangerous than running with the wrong crowd is running with no crowd. "I'll hear many times, when I ask an athlete who he has surrounded himself with, that it's a bunch of yes-men," says Paul. "But it's worse to hear the excuse—the lie—that 'I'm a loner, I like being by myself, that's my personality.' People who say that have another agenda, which is to maintain a side that they don't want anyone to know about."
That's why Shane Spencer is my swami. The Mets outfielder was arrested last week after allegedly driving 96 mph in the middle of the night on I-95 in Florida. Since he was charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence, I've fallen under his influence. And what he taught me is this: "Sign up for a limo service!" says Paul. "I've given this talk so many times. Some of these guys never had a car growing up. Now that they can have any car they want, they don't want anyone else to drive it. I've told athletes in the NFL and NBA, 'Buy a limo company. Give your teammates the number on a card, tell your friends to use your cars when they drink. With a limo, you're still styling. And you don't have to bother with parking.' "
The path to enlightenment was paved by Jayson Williams who, alas, did use a limo service. "If I were his p.r. person," Paul says of the ex-Net who was found not guilty of aggravated manslaughter in the shooting death of a chauffeur, "I'd tell him, 'Some things are just fact: Your carelessness with guns, the [cocky] way you talk—these are not just perceptions, they're facts.' You have to have humility, and he's not there yet."
As Williams will discover, the court of law is distinct from the court of public opinion. "If you're in trouble," says Paul, "you're gonna get advice from your lawyer, and that's the last thing you want to follow in building a reputation. O.J. Simpson listened to his lawyer and stayed out of jail, but what happened? His lawyer's reputation became 10 times greater than it was before the trial. And O.J.'s became 10 times worse."
When George O'Leary was discovered to have lied on the r�sum� that got him hired, then fired, as football coach at Notre Dame, his younger brother phoned Paul for pro bono advice. Paul suggested that O'Leary tell the truth—that he tell students in hundreds of schools the perils of lying on a r�sum�. Says Paul, "He'd [have been] seen as a savior."
Confession is good for the soul and for the stomach. "I had the CFO of a company break down and start crying over lunch," says Paul. "He said, 'I can't tell this lie anymore, I have ulcers, my family is thinking of leaving me, and I can't deal with this any longer: I've been cooking the books for years.' "
That's why Bobby Knight is my life coach. "It's not too late for him or for anybody to say, 'I've done some wrong things in life, and I want to come clean,' " says Paul. "Look at Lyle Alzado. He came clean at the end, said he'd done some crazy things to his body."
Forget the Andre Agassi adage, "Image is everything." As Paul tells athletes, "An image is fake, but a reputation is built. If you want to build a positive reputation, you don't need spin, you need bricks. And those bricks better include humility, truth, transparency and accountability, which will then build character and integrity. Those, ultimately, equal a positive long-term reputation."