- Ryan Lochte’s word choice on the robbery in Rio has changed substantially from earlier in the week, likely because the law has influenced his ability to apologize.
Ryan Lochte says he’s sorry—sort of.
In a statement released on Twitter on Friday, the 32-year-old gold medalist apologized “for not being more careful and candid” in his original description of a controversial incident that took place Sunday morning in Rio's Barra da Tijuca neighborhood. Lochte initially claimed that he and three teammates (Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger) were victims of an armed robbery. The alleged robbery sounded almost like a scene from an action movie. It featured Rio de Janeiro police impersonators stopping a taxicab on a street, forcibly removing the swimmers from the car and then robbing them at gunpoint. Over the last two days, surveillance video has surfaced that debunks the incident as Lochte portrayed it. It remains possible, however, that armed guards indeed confronted the swimmers and demanded—possibly upon threat of force—that they reimburse a gas station owner for property damage they inflicted on the gas station’s bathroom.
Unpacking the verbiage of Lochte’s apology
Lochte’s apology does not walk back his central claim that he was the victim of a crime. “It’s traumatic,” Lochte asserts, “to have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.”
To be sure, Lochte’s word choice has changed substantially from earlier in the week. Originally he described the assailants as men who were outfitted in police uniforms and donning police badges. Lochte also retold how the assailants angrily pulled over the taxicab while it was driving with the four swimmers as passengers. Lochte’s new depiction noticeably moves away from the claim of Rio de Janeiro police impersonators and a car being pulled over.
The change in words reflects several dynamics. One crucial factor is that Lochte’s original comments were made as part of an in-person interview with NBC’s Today Show while his new comments are released as part of a carefully scripted statement that was no doubt cleared—if not outright authored—by a group likely consisting of public relations advisors and attorneys, and possibly also U.S. Olympic Committee executives. The new words are less likely to offend Brazilian authorities. This particularly true of the Rio de Janeiro police, who were surely aggravated by an allegation that they could be easily impersonated and that they failed to stop the kind of dramatic crime sequence Lochte originally spoke about.
Still, Lochte’s new words nonetheless maintain that he was the victim of both a robbery and, since he insists that he was detained against his will and upon threat of a firearm, false imprisonment. Lochte’s continued contention that he was the victim of a crime likely falls short of expectations by Brazilian authorities. By all accounts, they view Lochte and the other three swimmers as drunken and dishonest vandals.
Bentz, Conger and Feigen have noticeably adopted a different approach. As discussed earlier this morning on SI.com, a statement by Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, indicates that the three other swimmers offered statements to Brazilian authorities in which they acknowledged some degree of responsibility. While their statements have not been made public, it is fair to assume that the tone of their statements was likely more contrite than that offered by Lochte on Friday.
Lochte, however, is in a different situation than the other swimmers. He returned to the U.S. while the other three remained in Brazil. Brazilian authorities therefore had substantial leverage to extract confessions from the trio, who could not exit the country without Brazil’s consent. It stands to reason that Bentz, Conger and Feigen would be willing to acknowledge significant blame if it meant a return ticket home. The strategy seems to have worked. Bentz and Conger are back in the U.S., while Feigen—whom Brazilian authorities recommended he along with Lochte be charged with charged with falsely reporting a crime—is expected to be able to return after he “donates” $10,800 to an unnamed Brazilian charity.
How the law influences—and constrains—Lochte’s ability to apologize
Lochte’s approach is surely influenced by the legal fallout of any statements he makes about the incident. Lochte could be charged by Brazilian authorities with falsely reporting a crime, along with related crimes for vandalism, trespass, obstruction of justice and, if he had a physical confrontation with a guard, assault and battery. As I detailed on SI.com, it would be virtually impossible for Brazil to successfully extradite Lochte under the terms of the extradition treaty signed by the U.S. and Brazil. Still, Lochte does not want to issue a statement in which he admits that he committed a crime. Brazilian authorities could use such a statement against him, including if they tried him in absentia (meaning without Lochte in court to defend himself).
Lochte’s other legal worry is how companies with which he has signed endorsement deals and the USOC and International Olympic Committee will treat his remarks. Lochte reportedly earns about $2 million a year in endorsement income. He has deals with such companies as Ralph Lauren, Speedo and Gillette. While the terms of those contracts are not public, they surely contain “morals clause” language. Morals clauses are terms that permit an endorsed company to exit or suspend payments to an endorsing athlete if the athlete engages in any sort of public controversy. Often the clauses require the athlete to “act at all times with due regard to public morals and conventions.” They also authorize the company to take action if the athlete does anything that “shall be an offense involving moral turpitude under federal, state or local laws, or which brings the athlete or company into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which insults or offends the community.” Lochte’s possible criminal conduct would have occurred in another country, the controversy he’s caused would likely provide sufficient legal grounds for his endorsed companies to terminate their agreements. Lochte’s “apology” is likely designed to diminish the chances of those companies taking such punitive action.
The USOC also holds considerable leverage over Lochte. It could suspend Lochte from further competition or attempt to withhold his gold medal bonus of $25,000. In all likelihood, Lochte’s statement was cleared by the USOC as a way of placating USOC officials and dissuading them from punishing him.
Even if Lochte avoids discipline from the USOC, the IOC could still punish him. The Olympic Charter authorizes the IOC to sanction Olympic athletes for undermining the values of the Olympic Games. The IOC is forming a disciplinary commission to review the conduct of the four swimmers. If it determines that Lochte’s actions warrant sanction, the IOC could go so far as to strip Lochte of the gold medal he earned on Aug. 9 in the Men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay.
Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.