Jay Cutler Has A Reputation Equity Problem– And So Do We

Jay Cutler was near tears last Sunday. The 27-year old quarterback of the Chicago Bears football team turned away from reporters so they couldn’t look at him tear up.  Was Cutler upset because his Bears had just lost 21-14 to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game,  for the right to go to the Super Bowl?

No, Cutler was upset because after he left the game early in the second half with what appeared to be a gimpy knee, some fellow and former NFL players jumped on Twitter to question his toughness and commitment to his team mates.  Being called a quitter almost made Jay Cutler cry.

Lance Moore, a wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints received this tweet from a fan: “Cutler gave up wouldn’t you say?” to which he replied, “It’s hard to know but it def looked like it.”  Huffed Darnell Docket, Arizona Cardinals defensive end: “If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!”

Ouch!  What was Jay Cutler’s sin? After he came off the field he appeared disinterested in the game and sat on the bench looking bored.   Oh yeah, and he actually got up—without crutches!—and walked around awhile.  Here’s what he looked liked:

Jay Cutler looks bored, right?

The next day it was disclosed that Cutler had suffered a slight tear in the anterior ACL of his left knee.  According to medical experts this will likely require corrective surgery.

So what was Cutler’s sin again? I think it was this curious mob thinking:  Cutler came into the game with a reputation as a gifted but erratic quarterback who generally carries an expression of boredom on his face.  When he left the championship game with a mysterious knee injury (he wasn’t carted off the field on a stretcher, after all!) people just put the mythological 2+2 together in their heads and said: “he’s a quitter.”

Look at Cutler on the sidelines after his injury.  Okay yes, he doesn’t look like Thesus screaming to get back into battle against the Minotaur.  But what’s the standard for driving this mass judgement?

Brett Favre, the recently re-re-retired Minnesota Vikings quarterback, was also knocked out of a game earlier in this season.  And like Cutler, he spent time on the sidelines wandering around looking bored.  But no one questioned Brett Favre’s manhood the way Cutler was crucified on the Internet last Sunday.

Why Cutler and not Favre?

Well, Favre was in his 20th NFL season and had long ago established himself as the gold standard in toughness.  Until this season he had never missed a single start, setting a record for durability that won’t likely be broken in the NFL.  Perhaps just as important, he established his personality: fun-loving, aw-shucks country boy who genuinely loved to play the game of football.

All of Favre’s “reputation equity,” to coin a term, meant that when we saw him looking bored walking around on the sidelines after he was injured we never gave it a second thought.  Favre’s reputation as a lovable tough guy was so firmly embedded in fan’s minds that there was no contradicting it.

Brett Favre looks tough, right?

Cutler’s career has wallowed in middling success.  He was a top NFL draft choice of the Denver Broncos, but got himself traded to Chicago when he began disagreeing with his coaches.  Once in Chicago he went through two mediocre seasons before this year, when the Bears went 12-4.  But even this year the rap on Cutler was: erratic, disengaged, prima donna.

How you going to fight that?

What people didn’t see on television on Sunday was Cutler jumping up from the bench for joy and limping out to the field to congratulate his eventual replacement at quarterback, third-stringer Caleb Haine, after Haine after threw a touchdown pass to bring the Bears back within 7 points.  And after the game talking to reporters,  Cutler’s teammates, including uber-tough guy linebacker Brian Urlacher lept to his defense.  “They don’t know how tough he is, every day,” said Urlacher.  “We do.”

Some might say that Cutler is a damaged “brand.” I think he’s got a damaged reputation, and there’s a difference.  Reputation is based entirely on how we think someone or some product or organization will perform.   Nobody got fired for hiring Brett Favre (at least not for quite awhile) and nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

The fact that Jay Cutler was excoriated over Twitter in near real-time points to the dangers, and yes, the opportunities, of near real-time reputation management.  Cutler should always remember that professional athletics is the entertainment business and these days when the camera is on you, you best be on your best.

What can Cutler do about it now?  First, if he actually is a prima donna and a quitter, not much.  As Shakespeare proved, “character is destiny.”  But assuming for a moment that Jay Cutler is actually a pretty high quality NFL quarterback, how does he come back from this debacle?  He should have started out by NOT going out to dinner that night at a very public restaurant in Chicago, and be seen walking up stairs.  (This actually happened, and if I was his PR agent I would have slapped him upside the head.)

Next, I’d find a favorable venue that has lots of sports cred like Peter King’s segments on NBC, and be himself.  Tell some stories on himself.  Answer the whispered accusation (“My only crime was not getting in front of a CBS camera when I was cheering my teammates.”) The way you get out of a bad reputation is that you imagine what a credible good reputation would be like and then you START OVER in that new direction.

Americans love to bring down the mighty. Almost as much as we love seeing them come back.   Just ask Barack OIbama.

In the few days since the game there’s actually been a strong backlash against the dozen or so NFL players and former players who questioned Cutler’s commitment and manhood on Twitter.  They’re doing their own reputation damage control as they learn not to Tweet so fast–and so judgmentally of another.  (“Tweet as you would have others tweet about you,” sayeth the good book)

As a sports fan I have a gripe with Jay Cutler, but it’s not his bored expression on the sidelines.  I think he stunk on their field before he was injured–he overthrew two potential touchdown receptions when the game was on the line.   He continues to rely on God-given talent rather than actually learning his craft.  In other words, he’s a bad quarterback, not a bad man.

The biggest lesson isn’t for Jay Cutler, it’s for us.  The social landscape is as fast as lightning.  It’s pretty easy to trash a reputation on Twitter—especially when you don’t have much reputation equity to begin with.

Just ask Jay Cutler.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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