Pistorius, Armstrong, Woods and others raise endorsement questions


Nike, Oakley and others are backtracking and hunkering down in the wake of news that police accused South African dual-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius of murdering his girlfriend, 30-year-old Reeva Steenkamp early on Valentine’s Day.

Ironically, she’d been an outspoken fighter against abuse and rape of women. Nike had an ad calling Pistorius “the bullet in the chamber.” Nike took that one down in about 37 seconds.

The Olympic hero, an inspiration to so many gifted amputees, as well as anyone who likes a triumph story, is now an anvil around the necks of his major sponsors.

He joins the shameful behavior category of other sports stars, like Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson, Ray Lewis, Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger and British soccer star John Terry, who was subsequently cleared of issuing racial epithets at an opponent.

These crises for the likes of Nike and others who rely on celebrity and athlete endorsements, are the risks behind the glitz. For every Steve Young, there’s a Jovan Belcher. For every Jerry Rice, there’s an Art Schlichter.

A Bronx assemblyman today proposed a bill banning children under age 11 from playing youth football, due to the potential for injury, but surely not helped by the image of rampant violence and pro football players who embarrass the game.

No one can predict human behavior, and certainly Nike, Oakley, the Olympics and the South African Olympic team are scratching their heads over this mess.

For the most part, the response is to disassociate, express remorse for the families and otherwise hibernate until the companies can wake up from the bad dream.

Nike’s business is athletics, and few brands beyond ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the major sports leagues themselves have been more responsible for associating athletics with heroics than the Swoosh.

High school kids making last-second winning half-court basketball shots get onto ESPN’s Top 10 Plays. And they probably should. The triumph of the human spirit is a story with endless appeal.

Surely these companies are going to scrutinize more exhaustively the young athletes they’re choosing to endorse for the next 20 years. But Tiger Woods was a teen-ager when he signed. Lance Armstrong triumphed over Alpe d’Huez year after year. Their successes were historic. How did anyone know that Woods celebrated good rounds of golf with rounds of women to whom he wasn’t married? Or that Armstrong added PED cycles to his Tour de France cycling?

Risky business, indeed.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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