Professional athletes are at the top of their game. They have outrun, outplayed, and outscored their peers to get to the top. Once there, the stars gather a following. Facebook, Twitter, email, fan clubs, someone somewhere is a fan and emulates the athletic star. Their fans want to be like their favorite athlete in every way, so much in fact that you could say today’s athletes have become modern day heroes. Companies see this, and want to cash in on the athlete’s success. So they sponsor the athlete…you scratch my back (promote my product) and I’ll scratch yours (with a multi-million dollar deal). The company sells more of their product, the athlete gets richer. With power and fame come responsibility, however sometimes the more famous one becomes and the more money they make, they forget that responsibility and make a poor decision or commit an immoral act. With every cause, there is an effect; when it’s a bad cause, the effect is quite often catastrophic. Let’s look at an athlete who made a wrong decision.
I decided to take a look into the athletic prowess and career of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. He drafted straight out of high school and played first for the Charlotte Hornets and then earned his fame once he joined the Los Angeles Lakers. Once he started winning championships and breaking basketball records, the companies started calling. He was making mega-bucks for the LA Lakers, and big business wanted in on the action. Bryant signed lucrative deals with Adidas ($48 million) (Jensen, 2000), Coca-Cola to promote the Sprite soft drink, McDonald's to appear in advertisements, Spalding to promote their new NBA Infusion Ball, Upper Deck trading cards, Nutella, Russell Corporation, and Nintendo to appear on his own series of video games. But his lucrative sponsorship deals didn’t last.
In 2003, everything came crashing down for Bryant. He was accused of sexual assault by a 19 year-old while staying at a Colorado resort. Once the allegations became public, his sponsorship deals with many of the companies were terminated. It was estimated he lost between $4 and $6 million dollars of investment income because of the scandal (Seepersaud, n.d.). One notable exception to this was Nike because they had just signed him to a 5-year $40 million dollar contract (Duncan, 2010). They did however refuse to use his image or market a new shoe with his name. One wrong decision, one act of passion, and it became a huge moral issue.
Today’s endorsement contracts have moral clauses written into them for just such reasons. I believe companies that use professional athletes to endorse their products should drop them once they become involved in personal scandals. Why should someone continue to get paid and represent that company when they have committed a moral transgression? The companies that endorse athletic stars to sell their products really cannot take the risks associated with scandals, especially one in the magnitude that Kobe Bryant was charged with. Even though the married Lakers star admitted to committing adultery, he said the sex was between two consenting adults. Bryant did issue an apology, and the case was eventually dropped and settled out of court, but by then the damage had been done. The companies who provide sponsorships realize that when indiscretions are committed, their own reputation may be damaged and upholding the contract may do more