The athletes revered by the masses, those who score legions of fans and secure a place in the hearts of their admirers, often find ways off the field to disappoint. When they find themselves in trouble, it leaves sponsors with tough decisions to make.
Nike was dealt another blow this week with news that one of its star tennis athletes, Maria Sharapova, failed a drug test at the Australian Open. The brand’s response was to suspend its relationship with her.
This is not the first time one of the Beaverton, Ore.-based athletic behemoth’s sponsored athletes has landed in hot water. In fact, Nike’s roster has been filled with troubled stars historically. Currently, the Swoosh has athletes who have been involved in scandals that made headlines with sports publications as well as the national media.
Kobe Bryant is currently playing in his last season in the NBA, and he’s being celebrated around the league in every city he plays. But in 2003, the Los Angeles Lakers icon wasn’t being praised; he was being denounced. Bryant was arrested on sexual-assault charges in Colorado, but the alleged victim refused to testify and the case was dropped a year later. The star did not re-sign with Adidas after his deal ended and began wearing Nike in 2003. Nike has released 11 signature shoes for Bryant since signing with the brand.
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Lance Armstrong didn’t fare as well with Nike as Bryant did. The cyclist, long associated with doping, came clean in 2013 after being defiant for years. Nike parted ways with the decorated athlete, who was also stripped of his Tour de France titles. Nike also severed ties with the Livestrong Foundation, the Armstrong-assisted nonprofit organization that helps people affected by cancer, and stopped producing its line of Livestrong products.
After Tiger Woods’ rampant infidelity was made public in 2009, a number of sponsors parted ways with the golfer, such as Gatorade, AT&T and Gillette. But Nike wasn’t one of them. The brand created a TV ad for Woods titled “Earl and Tiger” in 2010, featuring the voice of his late father and a silent Woods with his father questioning his actions and if he learned from them, appearing to humanize and humble a once seemingly perfect person.
Matt Powell, sports industry analyst with the NPD Group, informed Footwear News after news broke of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s suspension stemming from his role in the “Deflategate” scandal as to how brands deal with athletes receiving discipline.
“Most of the time, brands do a pretty good job of monitoring the situation, and if the athlete really crossed some serious lines, they’ll cut him off,” Powell said. “If it seems relatively minor, they tend to stick with him.”
Bryant, Armstrong and Woods are just three of a slew of current and past Nike athletes involved in scandal, a list that also includes NFL running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, quarterback Michael Vick, double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, and many more.