Not long after he decamped from Dallas to Buffalo last summer, Terrell Owens made disparaging remarks about Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who while at Yankee Stadium five days later was beset upon by the media. "I didn't see it, I don't know," Romo said, dousing the hoped-for conflagration.
Most sports fans likely felt a stab of disappointment. Don't feuds enliven the sports narrative? (And hasn't this become the declining T.O.'s raison d'√™tre, to ensure that the flame of sports controversy burns eternal?) But one die-hard Yankees fan who saw Romo's response fairly cooed. "I was on my couch going, 'Yessss,'" recalls Ari Fleischer. "Romo knew what he was doing and didn't take the bait!"
Seven years after Fleischer came out from behind the lectern of the West Wing, where he served as George W. Bush's first press secretary, he is still diffusing controversy, shaping messages and making sure public figures stay on point. Only now, Fleischer, 49, operates as an emissary to the Republic of Sports, just one in a growing wave of political operatives turned locker room crisis managers. Alex Rodriguez's damage control in the wake of his 2009 steroids admission, for example, was managed by Outside Eyes, a firm run by Reed Dickens, a former Bush-Cheney staffer, and Ben Porritt, a onetime national spokesperson for the McCain-Palin campaign. It's a booming, recession-proof business. Fleischer has encouraged the BCS, among other things, to start a Twitter feed in a bid to connect with the public, and he choreographed Mark McGwire's recent mea culpa on his steroid use.
Last week's revelation that Fleischer would serve as one of the orchestrators of Tiger Woods's comeback had the ring of inevitability, though two days earlier, in a broad interview with SI, Fleischer declined to acknowledge any relationship with Woods. "If he comes out and wins tournaments, wins the Masters, he's back," Fleischer did say. "If he plays poorly, people are going to say, 'He's lost his game, he's lost his ferocity.' They're going to blame it on what he did."
When Fleischer—who cut a polarizing figure as the Bush administration's mouthpiece for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq— left the White House in 2003, he said, "I want to do something more relaxing, like dismantle live nuclear weapons." Shortly after his departure, he received a cold call from Sandy Montag, a media agent at IMG. There was a place in sports for a politically connected, battle-tested media consultant, they agreed, but it took time to convince sports' gatekeepers that Fleischer's skills translated. That changed, however, in 2005, when Congress held the steroids hearing during which McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro famously stumbled and mumbled. Says Fleischer, "None of them were prepared, and their answers weren't good." The next day Fleischer was asked by Bud Selig, dismayed by the image hit his sport had taken, to come to Milwaukee for a meeting. Thus began a four-year contractual relationship as an MLB consultant.
By 2007 he'd established Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, a 50-50 partnership with IMG. In addition to MLB, the business has included such clients as the Green Bay Packers, a NASCAR team and the BCS. When McGwire and Fleischer agreed to work together, their first exercise was role-playing, Fleischer asking questions and McGwire answering, then Fleischer explaining the likely follow-up. Fleischer insisted on an interview with Bob Costas, on the MLB Network, a sometimes pressing exchange McGwire, contrary to popular belief, says went "wonderfully." Adds McGwire, "I can't thank Ari enough. And I hope I never need him again."
Did Fleischer regret McGwire's insistence that he used steroids only to recover from injury, not for performance enhancement? "Even if he said, 'I took steroids to aid performance,' he'd have had the same amount of criticism," Fleischer said in his interview with SI. "The bottom line was he came clean."
But Fleischer indicated that any strategy he might recommend to Woods would not involve much in the way of public cleansing. "Obviously what Tiger did was horrendous in his personal life," Fleischer says. "But he's under no obligation to tell anyone the details about it. I believe he should draw a line in the sand between his golf and private matters. Being in public life doesn't mean you have to succumb to the overwhelming curiosity factor that permeates everything in our society."
Purists will groan at the prospect of sports being infected with the cynical stagecraft that characterizes political campaigns, with the kind of media training that bleaches color from the landscape. "Ever since I got out of baseball [in 2001], the landscape's changed so much," says McGwire. "With Ari, he's just filling a need."
Now on SI.com
For more of Wertheim's interview with Ari Fleischer, go to SI.com/wertheim
Fleischer indicated any strategy he might recommend to Woods would not involve much in the way of PUBLIC CLEANSING.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW