‘Pampered’ Athletes NOT behaving Badly

In his November column, SLRG President Jon Last finds a refreshing potential “diamond in the rough” in the game of identifying endorsement worthy pro athletes.

I’ve used this space in the past to speak to the complex subject of selecting appropriate athletes as endorsers. My main messages have included a warning against hitching your fortunes too closely to singular stars as well as an appeal to utilize marketing research to assure that those athletes that a property is considering aligning with are an appropriate fit with how your brand wishes to position itself. Certainly we are all too familiar with the risks inherent in subjugating a brand to the often erratic behaviors of professional athletes. And with all the negativity and muckraking that seems to permeate sports and popular culture in general, it’s difficult to find true heroes that seem authentic.

That said, I read a story the other day that compelled me as a sports marketer, student of human behavior (an alternative description for a marketing researcher) and one who remains proud to have been closely associated with the game of golf throughout my career. And while I am always one that advocates doing your homework before jumping to marketing decisions, the story I’m referencing was so compelling that I’d urge any brand looking to associate itself with values such as self discipline, honesty and strong moral fiber, to keep an eye on a young professional golfer named Blayne Barber.

Unless you are the most ardent of golf fans, you’ve probably never heard of Barber. While he enjoyed a strong amateur career at Auburn University, was a member of the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team and played well in a limited number of developmental professional tour events this Fall, the 22 year old Barber has not yet earned full-time playing privileges on the PGA Tour. In fact, the story I’m building up to took place during the first stage of the national qualifying process for Tour membership.

First, some context. Through this year, entrance onto the grand stage of professional golf has been achieved through what I still believe to be is the most stringent, non-subjective assessment of an aspiring athlete in any professional sport. Would be  Tour players with no prior  Tour experience, must earn their way onto the circuit by being among the top performers in each of a series of successive tournaments, culminating in a grueling final event where merely a handful of top finishers get an opportunity to compete on the PGA Tour the following year. There are no guaranteed contracts or signing bonuses here. You either go low, or go home and try to scratch out a living playing developmental tournaments or as a club professional. Those who beat the odds, get a chance to play for millions (still a far from guaranteed proposition). Those who have an off day, regardless of what they did in college, have to wait another year to start the process again. And, to add to the pressure, the system changes next year so that those who get through the 2013 qualifying school, as it is called, are only going to be given admission to the Web.com Tour, the “AAA Minors” of professional golf.

So here comes Blayne Barber, highly decorated as an amateur, initially successful as a professional. He’s cruising through the first stage of qualifying, when on the 13th hole of his second round, he believes that his club touches a leaf in a bunker and calls a one stroke penalty on himself. No one is sure that this has happened. But Barber feels that it might have, and he calls the penalty on himself. Later, Barber learns that the penalty should have been two strokes, and given the intricacies of the rules of golf, he realizes that he has now signed an incorrect scorecard and calls Tour headquarters to disqualify himself from the qualifying process. He does not pass go. He does not collect $100. He goes home and forfeits the opportunity to begin his PGA Tour career, in earnest, by most likely a two-year minimum.

I’m floored. In this day and age of “win at all costs,” here’s a young man, who should be the poster child for everything that is supposed to be right about sports … an emphatic testament to one of the main drivers of why our research has so often shown golfers to be relatively immune from the scandal and negativity that so often gets thrown at other sports. Here’s a guy who puts the tradition and purity of the game above self-interest, even when the personal costs are huge.

I have never heard Blayne Barber speak. I do not know if he holds controversial points of view or if there are skeletons in his closet. I offer no prognostication on whether his skills will ultimately stand up to the rigors of big time professional golf. But by his actions alone, Blayne Barber strikes me as a true sports hero who could be a wonderful ambassador for many brands. I’ll be rooting for him.