Sponsorship and controversy. It’s a tricky one isn’t it?
Someone does something historically against the rules, illegal perhaps, and time and punishment is not all that’s at stake . It becomes a matter of morality. We saw this in its rawest form with the Ched Evans case, when sponsors and celebrity fans publicly denounced and withdrew financial support for any club that associated themselves with the player.
Rape is an abhorrent crime but how many of those who applied that moral pressure actually knew the finite details of the case rather than what was simply in the headlines? Probably not many and yet the die was cast. A man who had served his time (all the while strenuously claiming his innocence) was no longer allowed to work in the profession he had trained in due to the moral pressures on those holding the purse strings becoming too much to bear. Scratching beneath the surface and reading the case files as I have done might change your opinion slightly. Without doubt Evans comes across badly but conclusively guilty? Have a read. Evans biggest mistake from a PR point of view was to not apologise immediately on his release, but for a man who still debates the validity of the evidence and the case brought against him one can comprehend his rationale for not being more decisive on that front.
Having said all that, the Ched Evans case is not the focus of this blog. The question I am trying to answer, is if the moral compass of the masses has a sway on commercial partnerships in sport, then what was the thinking behind Nike’s recent sponsorship of the not once, but twice banned drug cheat Justin Gatlin?
For clarity, in no shape or form am I comparing the crime of rape with that of cheating in competitive sport. Not for a second. But for every Evans there is a Mike Tyson (Rape), a Michael Irvin (Dallas Cowboy who stabbed his team mate in the throat), who have apologised and managed to resurrect their careers. Irvin is now in fact one of the most popular commentators on the NFL network.
Maybe us Brits are more scrutinising and judgemental than our cousins across the pond or perhaps American audiences are simply more forgiving?
But Gatlin has appeared unrepentant over his misdemeanours, showing little or no remorse for his actions.
So maybe for Nike it’s about business as usual and backing a winner. And boy does Gatlin look like a winner at the moment. In an era where Usain Bolt has elevated the sport of athletics to never before seen status, 2014 saw a different athlete dominate the track. Gatlin clocked 9.77 in the 100m and 19.68 in the 200m during the outdoor season. If anyone stands a chance of halting Usain’s historic bid for gold at a third consecutive Olympics it’s Gatlin. And Nike know it.
From a PR perspective Gatlin is a walking disaster. In October 2014 a little known Norwegian middle distance runner at Oklahoma State University posted a picture on Instagram of himself giving the finger to his TV, on which Gatlin was displayed, with the caption “Druggers are not welcome”. The USA sprinter, 11 years senior, responded with a mature “Your mom gives the best b*** j*** too. She’s awesome. U can call me daddy like she does.”. A series of similar juvenile insults continued until Justin’s manager announced that his social media accounts had been “hacked” and were promptly shut down.
When the IAAF announced Gatlin was on a shortlist for the prestigious Athlete of the Year award, Lord Coe commented that it was a “big problem” whilst German discus thrower Robert Harting asked to be removed from the shortlist in protest.
Paula Radcliffe, a Nike athlete herself, has come out and voiced her disappointment on the sponsorship news on Twitter, claiming that the decision to sponsor Gatlin does not reflect “the core values of the Nike that I am proud to represent”.
Is this naïve? Surely if he has served his time there is no more to be done?
And here is the rub.
As Gatlin gets older he is getting faster. Whilst most of us feel our legs get slightly heavier in our 30’s, at 32 Gatlin was unbeaten over both sprint distances last year, setting six of the seven fastest times for the 100m and smashing his personal best for the 200m.
Most Olympians are freaks of nature so there is every chance this late blooming of speed could be down to pure genetics and hard work rather than drugs. However there is a school of thought that systematic dopers can gain long term residual benefits from their cheating, gaining a long term physical benefit from training their bodies whilst supplementing with synthetic substances over an extended period. Scientists at the University of Oslo believe that notion is not so farfetched at all, with one Professor of Physiology claiming that “it is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades”.
According to statistic company Infostrada’s latest “virtual medal table”, which has made medal predictions for the Rio 2016 Olympics based on recent results, Gatlin will win 100m gold ahead of Usain Bolt next year.
Perhaps Nike felt the negative associations with Gatlin wouldn’t have a negative impact on sales, especially in contrast to the positive knock on effect of their famous swoosh emblazoned on the chest of the next Olympic champion of the world. After all, 12 years is a long time for a dominant brand the size of Nike to wait for such an honour. And who was wearing their gear the last time they took home Gold in 2004? A 22 year old Justin Gatlin.
I don’t have an issue with Gatlin committing a crime, serving his time and then continuing to work in the industry he has trained in. But if he were to win Olympic gold benefiting from his years training on steroids it would be a devastating blow to the sport and the bad guy would win.
And as for Nike’s decision? Perhaps I will get my head around it on my next run. I find a run can focus the mind. Oh and I’ll be running in my new Asics trainers.
The views expressed on this blog are those of the author and not Pitch.