California Chrome and the Case for Media Training

Over the weekend, California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn re-defined the term “sore loser” with a post-Belmont tirade accusing the winner of the Belmont Stakes of having taken “the coward’s way out” to ruin his horse’s Triple Crown Bid.

After a night of sleep, it even got worse; he made another even more ill-advised, insensitive remark about playing basketball against a child in a wheelchair. In doing so, Coburn vividly made the case for the power of media training (and what happens when you don’t have it).

Up until this point, his horse’s bid to win the Triple Crown had been a feel-good inspirational story as a horse had not won all three races in 36 years. But Coburn was not prepared for the results of the Belmont and completely lost his composure. Hopefully he will not be remembered for being a terrible sport instead of a plucky, determined underdog who prevailed in the sport of Kings. Winning the Kentucky Derby is no small feat—following that with a win in the Preakness is impressive. But any goodwill he had generated is long gone at least for now.

Should the people behind the Belmont Stakes offer a brief media training seminar to participants? It would not be a bad idea because this sort of owner reflects badly on the entire sport. Many believe he had a valid point about the odds being stacked against his horse, but the way he delivered the message was about as ill-timed, ham-fisted and unpleasant as it possibly could have been.

No one wants to prepare for the defeat, but not being prepared can turn defeat into disaster. As we commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion, it bears repeating that Eisenhower did have a speech ready if D-Day failed. Almost any political candidate follows the same policy on election night. If you are prepared for defeat, then you are also ready for victory.

Preparation is necessary because sometimes inspiration is not going to be there at a time of desperation. The phrase “words fail me” when someone is unable to express their feelings, usually grief or sadness, is based on very typical human reactions to bad news.

But in a sport, we know there are only a few possible outcomes, win, lose or draw. It’s necessary to prepare for this. Very few people are good public speakers and there are very few good speechwriters, either. But anyone can be “coached up” to improve what they have. I have done media training for a lot of athletes and if you approach them as a coach would, they are generally receptive. Very few people are born with these skills, or have an innate understanding of the media. But everyone can at least learn.

Go back to the classic baseball movie “Bull Durham”– the scene on the bus when the veteran catcher played by Kevin Costner, Crash Davis is giving baseball pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) a lesson in sports interview “clichés.” Phrases like “I only hope I can help the team” and other humble, rote responses protect baseball players from creating bulletin board material for their rivals as well as creating dissension among their own team. Being a good sport is also drives endorsement deals and boosts a player’s value on the open market. No one wants to be the “cancer in the clubhouse.”

Media training doesn’t have to take a long time and it doesn’t have to be expensive. What Steve Coburn lost, beyond the race, is incalculable.