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Volume 10 No. 22
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Oscar Pistorius' Sponsors Switch Into 'Crisis-Management Mode' Following Murder Charge

Nike "swiftly pulled the unfortunately-worded ads, as the perils of celebrity brand endorsement were brought sharply into focus once again," according to Matthew Wall of the BBC. As South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius faced charges of "premeditated murder" in a Pretoria courtroom following the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, his sponsors "went into crisis-management mode." Pistorius, who has strongly rejected the murder charge, "is thought to have earned several million pounds from sponsorships" with Nike, BT, Thierry Mugler, Oakley, and Ossur, the Icelandic firm that makes the prosthetic carbon fibre blades he wears for races. However, in the world of sports sponsorship, the "Blade Runner" stands to "lose everything, even presuming his innocence." Industry veteran John Taylor said: "Even if Pistorius is found innocent, he is damaged goods. Brands need to act quickly and distance themselves from him; they cannot afford to wait until the case is heard. It's not like rats deserting a sinking ship, it's just the sensible thing to do." Sports marketing agency Brand Rapport Dir Nigel Currie said, "This is very different to the Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong cases; this is life and death. There's no coming back from this" (BBC, 2/15). The AFP reported the "accumulative total of Pistorius' earnings from sponsors, which accounts for much of his income, was reportedly" $4.7M. The next step for sponsors "is unclear." However, they have not been afraid "to sever ties with sports stars in less tragic circumstances" (AFP, 2/16).

CANCELING APPEARANCES: The PTI reported Pistorius' agent "has begun canceling races since the Olympic athlete was charged with the murder of his girlfriend." Pistorius' agent, Peet van Zyl, said that "he cancelled the contract" Saturday "for a high-profile re-match next month with fellow double-amputee Alan Oliveira to promote the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics." Van Zyl said, "I can't plan anything. I will only have him run when he is in a condition to run as a world-class athlete. Physically and mentally fit" (PTI, 2/17). In London, Andrew England reported with shoulder sagging and head bowed, Pistorius "broke down several times during the hearing at Pretoria Magistrates Court, occasionally comforted with a pat on the back from his brother, who sat with their silent father a row behind the accused." The case was adjourned until Tuesday after the defense "requested more time" to carry out its own investigations into the incident, and Pistorius "was not asked to enter a plea." A statement from Pistorius’ family and his representatives, issued after the hearing, said they disputed the alleged murder "in the strongest terms" (FINANCIAL TIMES, 2/15).

ROLE MODELS?: Also in London, Simon Kuper wrote way back in '08, "the three most admired personalities in sport were probably" Woods, Armstrong and Pistorius. They "were portrayed not just as great athletes but as great men, role models." Any sentient person over the age of eight already knew that great athletes "are not necessarily role models." That is not what the scandals "have taught us." Rather, we can see now that the sports-industrial complex -- the machine of media and advertising that cranks out myths about athletes -- "has gone into overdrive." From the early '90s, satellite TV and then the Internet "promoted sport globally, taking the sports-industrial complex with it." Its role models "are now marketed worldwide." Male athletes "have taken over roles once held by knights, saints and soldiers." They "represent the masculine ideal." Female athletes "remain less saleable, unless very pretty." Athletes’ brands "are being stretched ever further just as they themselves become narrower people." Yet when the athlete "predictably falls, the sports-industrial complex is dismayed." There "are now vacancies for role models to replace" Woods, Armstrong and Pistorius. Replacements "will be found -- and later will fall." Only the sports-industrial complex "goes on forever" (FINANCIAL TIMES, 2/15).

TROUBLED NIKE ATHLETES: In N.Y., Matthew Futterman wrote Nike endorser Pistorius' arrest "isn't the first time some member of the company's stable of galactic star sports figures has been a target of serious allegations," but can Nike's strategy of putting money behind inspirational stories "succeed indefinitely as the company veers from one catastrophe to the next." Nike-sponsored athletes previously under fire include Armstrong, Woods, Michael Vick and Marion Jones, as well as late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Yet the company through it all “has stayed a course centered on inspiration rather than product.” Pistorius, “after all, doesn't even wear shoes.” In the past it has been noted that “when a Nike athlete falls to earth, the company's fortunes continue to soar.” As major stars are “unmasked, there is a growing sense that the practice of mythmaking may have to stop.” There is a perception that Nike “has somehow changed the rules of athletic success in a crass or craven way,” and some “accuse the company of commoditizing fame.” An element about Nike that “rarely gets acknowledged is that it doesn't sell shoes, or even athletes, as much as it buys and sells stories, narratives, fairy tales.” They “aren't a shoe company as much as a giant abstraction -- a condition of the aspirational mind” (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 2/15).

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN: The GLOBE & MAIL’s Bruce Dowbiggin wrote these are “hard times for heroes and the people who promote or sponsor them.” In this “media-saturated age, where values sell products, sponsors and charities fall especially hard for athletes such as Pistorius or Armstrong.” Their “virtuous back stories give sponsors the halo effect in addition to marketing push.” Pistorius was one of the “great legends of the 2012 London Olympics, seemingly running against the odds on his blade-like feet.” His sponsors “took it from there, giving him the Lance Armstrong treatment.” But Dowbiggin wonders, “Did Pistorius’s Teflon effect cause the sponsors to miss signs? A cursory look behind the scenes should have raised flags about Pistorius” (GLOBE & MAIL, 2/15). ESPN’s Pablo Torre said the Pistorius story "continues the most brutal stretch of idol-smashing in sports that we’ve ever seen probably in history." Torre: "You start with Joe Paterno, you go to Lance Armstrong to Manti Te’o to now Oscar Pistorius” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 2/14).