More than most public figures, elite athletes capture the limelight for better or worse. With constant media attention personal issues become public affairs and can damage or ruin careers. In a recent episode of SCI TV, industry expert Katharine Nohr discusses how to approach risk management in sports, covering high profile athletes Justin Gatlin and Michael Phelps. With a background in insurance defense litigation, Nohr’s love of triathlon led her to start her own company, Nohr Sports Risk Management. She is the author of the industry leading book “Managing Risk in Sport and Recreation” and speaks around the world on these topics.

What is Risk Management in Sports?

Nohr advises professional and Olympic athletes on ways to prevent personal issues from affecting their brand and marketability. The issues she encounters range from performance enhancing drugs, relationship troubles, and substance abuse.

“There are so many areas where an athlete could have problems,” Nohr said. “Risk management occurs before and after incidents. You’re always working on it.”

When elite athletes minimize the personal risks in their life it can help the conversation with prospective teams and sponsors. Sometimes issues need deeper intervention such as counseling and life coaching.

“You’re looking at who they hang around with, what they’re doing in their lives to make them the most viable, attractive product essentially,” said Nohr. “The bottom line is that everyone is a brand. It’s important to understand what brand everyone is.”

Different Approaches from Sponsors

Nohr believes that no matter the sport, public perception of an athlete’s character is important. Sponsors vary on their approach to risk management in sports however. In 2009 when photos of swimmer Michael Phelps using marijuana became public Kellogg’s canceled his sponsorship because they thought the incident would damage their brand and target audience.

“The public does appreciate athletes that provide a very positive example for children,” Nohr said.

Nike has come under recent scrutiny for signing track star and convicted doper Justin Gatlin. The former Olympic Champion served a drug ban from 2006 to 2010 and has returned to the sport winning medals and setting records, but not without controversy.

“Nike has made a business decision,” Nohr said. “If most of the press is regarding his drug use, it could backfire. On the other hand if he gets gold medals and is the hero of the Olympics then it could go well.”