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Ryan Lochte’s biggest challenge may be court of public opinion

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Ryan Lochte acted like he was still a student at the University of Florida when he and three U.S. swimming teammates were involved in an incident at a Rio gas station. He does not yet realize that his Animal House tendencies should have stopped when he left Gainesville.

He is paying a heavy price on many fronts. The multiple gold medalist faces public scorn and withering media criticism. Suspension by the swimming federation and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is likely. He has lost four sponsors including Speedo and Ralph Lauren.

With his career lying in ruins, a new question arises. Was the foundation of his tale about a robbery at gunpoint true? If so, does it matter?

A USA Today investigation is shedding some new light. A video and an eyewitness corroborate the portion that says guns were drawn. The witness also says when cash was produced, the guns went down and the swimmers were allowed to leave.

Make no mistake, none of this would have happened had Lochte and his younger companions not attempted to have a public fraternity party 4,000 miles from home. Had he acted like the college-educated 32-year-old he is, his immediate future would be brighter today.

His embellished story of armed gunmen wearing police uniforms and robbing them at gunpoint put him behind a public relations eight ball. Restoring his credibility will take some time.

“If I’d never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “None of this would have happened, and it was my immature behavior.”

The credibility restoration project is boosted by what USA Today found. Fernando Deluz, a bi-lingual local disc jockey, got involved when guns were drawn and the Portuguese-English language barrier was becoming dangerous.

“As soon as (the guards) drew their weapon, that’s when I got worried,” said Deluz. He also said the police chief credited his involvement with possibly preventing a “tragedy.”

The part of Lochte’s tale about men in uniform pulling guns on them is now backed up by an objective witness. Did they draw the guns to rob the four, or just demand payment for damages? Logic and evidence point to the latter.

Deluz said it wasn’t any particular damage caused by the four (Lochte damaged a sign, not the bathroom) that agitated the guards. It was the “attitude of the guys messing up the place and then wanting to leave without a satisfactory resolution.”

Lochte and his attorney, Ft. Lauderdale-based Rick Ostrow, claim that security guards demanding money at gunpoint constitutes robbery.

“That part of the story will never change,” Ostrow told USA Today, referring to Lochte’s apology and revising his earlier account. “When (the swimmers) are being told to give up their money in another language with a hand signal ‘money’ that sounds like a robbery.”

Deluz believes that had the four Americans merely apologized, the matter would have de-escalated.

That is the bottom line. The confrontation should never have happened. When it did, it could have been a minor event.

The Brazilian authorities did not handle this perfectly as well. The USA Today investigation talked to people associated with the judicial system in Brazil that gives some legal cover to Lochte’s story.

But his problem remains that this should never have been a story. He must now deal with the aftermath. If he were 22 instead of 32, he would have more leeway.

Americans are a forgiving people, willing to give a second chance to youngsters who make mistakes as youths. They are a bit less forgiving of those old enough to know better.

 

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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