Why Nike is standing by disgraced Sharapova
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”.