Why Nike is stand­ing by dis­graced Shara­pova

CityPress - - Sport - SOL­VEN SIBIYA sports@city­press.co.za

US sports­wear gi­ant Nike is known for cut­ting ties with mis­be­hav­ing su­per­stars. But in a sur­prise move last week, the com­pany an­nounced it was re­in­stat­ing its spon­sor­ship of Rus­sian ten­nis ace Maria Shara­pova.

This fol­lowed a state­ment on June 8 by the In­ter­na­tional Ten­nis Fed­er­a­tion (ITF) that she would be banned for two years.

In March, the US-based star player pleaded guilty to hav­ing con­tra­vened the Anti-Dop­ing Rule un­der ar­ti­cle 2.1 at an ITF hear­ing.

She had tested pos­i­tive for the re­cently banned drug mel­do­nium at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary.

The ITF’s in­de­pen­dent tri­bunal con­ducted a two-day hear­ing on May 18 and 19 in Lon­don, where it re­ceived ev­i­dence be­fore tak­ing the de­ci­sion to sanc­tion her on June 8.

Nike’s about-turn dif­fers markedly from the stance it has taken against way­ward sports stars in the past.

US cyclist Lance Arm­strong was cut af­ter it was proven he was a drug cheat. Nike, an Arm­strong sup­porter since 1996, was the first to an­nounce it would be end­ing its spon­sor­ship af­ter the re­lease of an ex­ten­sive re­port from the US An­ti­Dop­ing Agency.

Arm­strong lost $21 mil­lion (R318 mil­lion). Nine spon­sors dropped him in one day.

South African sprinter Os­car Pis­to­rius also lost Nike’s $2 mil­lion an­nual spon­sor­ship af­ter mur­der­ing his girl­friend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.

Filipino boxer Manny Pac­quiao lost $12 mil­lion af­ter say­ing that ho­mo­sex­u­als were “worse than an­i­mals”.

An­other player mired in con­tro­versy was US Na­tional Foot­ball League star Ray Rice, who was caught on cam­era punch­ing his wife. He kissed his $1.6 mil­lion Nike spon­sor­ship good­bye.

The only other time Nike bucked its trend of drop­ping un­de­serv­ing sports stars was with US golfer Tiger Woods, whose spon­sor­ship was cut in half af­ter his in­fi­delity scandal.

Shara­pova is the lat­est player to get into hot wa­ter. Her two-year sus­pen­sion is ef­fec­tive from Jan­uary 26 2016 to Jan­uary 25 2018.

When the ITF sus­pended her, spon­sors, in­clud­ing Swiss watch­maker Tag Heuer and lux­ury car brand Porsche, sus­pended ties with Shara­pova. Amer­i­can Ex­press opted not to re­new deals with her.

But com­pa­nies such as Avon, Evian and Head all stuck with her.

While it may have sur­prised many when Nike an­nounced its re­in­state­ment of Shara­pova’s spon­sor­ship, keep­ing in­tact a re­la­tion­ship that started when she was just 11, Nike SA com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Ser­uscka Naidoo said there was noth­ing re­miss about the de­ci­sion.

“The ITF tri­bunal has found that Maria did not in­ten­tion­ally break its rules. Maria has al­ways made her po­si­tion clear, has apol­o­gised for her mis­take and is now ap­peal­ing the length of the ban. Based on the de­ci­sion of the ITF and its fac­tual find­ings, we hope to see Maria back on court and will con­tinue to part­ner with her,” she said.

Shara­pova’s le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives con­firmed the player was ap­peal­ing the sanc­tion, given that the ITF’s tri­bunal stated that she “did not in­tend to vi­o­late the rules”, adding that she was given an “un­fairly harsh sus­pen­sion be­cause she is such a fa­mous ath­lete and they wanted to make an ex­am­ple of her”.

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