Ryan Lochte’s million-dollar sponsorships with Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Syneron-Candela, and Airweave may not be the only things dead in the water after his Olympic-sized exaggeration that he was robbed at gunpoint in Rio: The swimmer's entire career could be washed up, too.
Though plenty of disgraced athletes have bounced back after their sponsors abandoned them — think Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant — swimmers face rougher waters. Baseball players and ballers play one season every year, but Lochte’s sport only makes a splash once every four years.
Rodriguez, the former Yankees player, was banned for all of 2014 over his use of performance-enhancing drugs. But with a stellar season in 2015, he quickly changed the narrative.
Something similar happened with Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who saw sponsors flee after he was accused of sexual assault more than a decade ago. Kobe bounced back to win an MVP, two more NBA titles, and the hearts and minds of many fans — not to mention the dollars of sponsors.
Even Lochte's teammate Michael Phelps faced his fair share of scandal — losing a sponsorship with Kellogg’s after a photo surfaced in 2008 of him smoking a bong at a party. After a DUI arrest in 2014, Phelps went to rehab.
But Phelps won six medals for Team USA in Rio. Winning helps heal all sorts of wounds.
However, if you're too old to regain dominance over your sport — as Lochte likely is — this route is tricky. Typically, athletes who were able to resuscitate their careers in the aftermath of scandal have either shown extreme remorse or have been able to demonstrate extreme athletic prowess — or both.
Lochte may struggle on both counts. His constantly revised explanation and apology haven’t gone over so well. And because he's already on the wrong side of 30, it's hard to imagine him dominating at Tokyo 2020. Experts say the peak of his career is likely behind him in a field largely dominated by men in their 20s. Even in Rio, Lochte only won one medal — a gold in a relay event with three other teammates.
“He doesn’t really have a competitive future ahead of him,” said Robert Boland, a former agent for Olympic athletes and current director of the master of sports administration program at Ohio University.
However, even if Lochte is done in the pool, it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that he could come back in a positive light. He could slowly woo back fans with good deeds and charitable work to redeem himself with the public.
Boland said the closest parallel to Lochte is Lance Armstrong, who is trying to make good with charity work even after his competitive opportunity has passed him. Similarly, Lochte “needs a new avenue to connect positively with the public,” said Boland.
Ultimately, even though Lochte is a 12-time medalist and the second-most decorated American Olympian, he is swimming against the tide of public opinion.
“I’m not sure how quickly you can erase what Ryan did from the sense of who he is,” said Robert Passikoff, president and founder of Brand Keys, a brand research consultancy group. “[Sponsors] probably have close to 20 or so gold medal winners to pick from that haven’t been raked across the coals as a liar and an idiot.”