Nike Drops Vick, But Keeps Roethlisberger?

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So far, Nike continues its professional relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. New York Times Opinionator columnist Timothy Egan wonders why Nike would drop Michael Vick after he plead guilty to dog fighting, but continue to support a man accused of abusing women.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Yesterday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended star football player Ben Roethlisberger for six games for violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy. Last week, prosecutors in Georgia declined to pursue sexual assault charges against the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, but damning details have been widely published. And one company in Pittsburgh who hired Roethlisberger decided he no longer fit the image they like to project. Another company hasn't - at least not yet. Nike continues to sell the shoe endorsed by Roethlisberger, the Marauder.

Yesterday, on The New York Times "Opinionator" blog, Timothy Egan wrote - what exactly does it take for Nike to dump a jock? The company did dump quarterback Michael Vick after his conviction for dogfighting, though it stuck by Tiger Woods through his recent scandal. Where do you draw the line?

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also go to our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION and join the conversation there.

Tim Egans joins us now from the studios of member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. TIMOTHY EGANS (The New York Times): Neal, it's great to be with you.

CONAN: And you wrote in your piece that when Nike dropped Michael Vick, they explained, we consider any cruelty to animals inhumane and unacceptable, but, you wrote, cruelty to women is okay?

Mr. EGANS: That seems to be the message they're sending, and it's a fascinating disconnect because I also admire Nike for what they did early on with female athletes. I live in the Pacific Northwest and I've seen a lot of young women, soccer players and especially long-distance runners, long ago when nobody cared one bit about them, their only - the only corporate sponsor of any sort was Nike. They helped them train, they gave them money, they gave them shoes, they gave them all kinds of things in the community. So they're very progressive with a lot of young female athletes and they helped them, you know, with a good positive self-image.

Then you have their big-name athletes, their big-name male athletes, of the two I mentioned here are Tiger Woods, of course, and the Pittsburgh quarterback Roethlisberger. And their behavior, while technically not criminal, is despicable to a lot of people. And so I basically asked this question, what do you have to do to lose your swoosh? And up popped this fascinating press release where Nike was boasting of the fact that they do not in any way condone people who are involved with cruelty to animals.

But if you read the exhaustive police report on what Roethlisberger did on that night in Georgia in March, of course, he was never charged and they said some of that was because of sloppy police work and the evidence was somewhat mixed. At the very least, his behavior was disgusting. And that's why the NFL commissioner suspended him. That's why this beef jerky company in Pittsburgh has dropped him, that's why his hometown newspaper said they could basically do without him. People are really turned off.

I mean, this is a guy who had an entourage of two off-duty cops basically protecting him while he trolled through a bar and according to witnesses he exposed himself. And according to witnesses he forced himself - really, really rotten stuff to women and yet, Nike said they'll stand by their man.

CONAN: Yet, isn't this something that we as consumers can do something about? If we object to Nike's policies, just don't buy Nike products.

Mr. EGANS: Well, that's the really big question. Now, I looked at the figures, and in the 13 weeks after Tiger Woods had his problems, or after his problems, I should say, were publicized, sales of Nike Tiger-related golf stuff really didn't change very much. So maybe Nike is making a bottom line corporate decision that, you know, there's a certain, as I said, creepy cred to having athletes who are bad boys.

I don't know if that's going to work in the Roethlisberger case because, again, Nike makes a big part of its appeal of being progressive to female athletes, and progressive to female athletes in very obscure sports.

Also, I want to make the point that it's a really big deal for somebody like Nike to take away your swoosh. I mean, that is - you know, it's one thing for the NFL commissioner to admonish you and suspend you - a very big deal, by the way. It's another thing to lose your beef jerky endorsement. But when Nike is the dominant player, they are, you know, they've got the - their branded tag on every athlete in the world, basically, who's any good. So when they take that away, it really is a big deal. So they could send a huge message to these entitled athletes.

And I don't think - I think Roethlisberger, if he was ever truthful with himself - now they've sent him off for what they call behavioral evaluation, which God knows what that's going to be - but if he looked himself in the mirror, he would be disgusted with the public image of what he's done.

He's also been accused of rape in a civil case. He's pled - he said that the charges are blameless, so we should give him that. But he's had a number of these events. I think if he looked in the mirror, he would be disgusted. So the question then is, does a company sell any shoes with a disgusting player like that?

CONAN: And, I guess we have to take this police report on its face. It was leaked to the media. The district attorney, in making his statement, went into an extraordinary amount of detail...

Mr. EGAN: Yes.

CONAN: ...given a case that he was not going to charge somebody. He didn't have the evidence, he said, to prove it. But he said, I don't prosecute morals, I prosecute crimes, and I can't prove that this is a crime. Nevertheless, isn't Ben Roethlisberger due some degree - this was a police report. He's not had a chance to investigate. There's been no adversarial process here. He's not had a chance to present his side of this.

Mr. EGAN: That's right. But he has met with the NFL commissioner. He's met with the president and the chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And you can bet your bottom dollar, as they would say in Pittsburgh, that if Roethlisberger was totally blameless on that night, they would not be suspending him. And if Roethlisberger was blameless on that night, the owner of the Steelers - Art Rooney the 2nd - would not be saying he's deeply troubled by this and they would not be leaking to the media the fact that they may even trade him today, on draft day, the biggest day in the NFL outside of the Super Bowl.

So, there's a lot of smoke - there's a lot of fire behind this smoke. And, yeah, the prosecutor said there was mixed evidence. And again, some of that was because of terrible police work. Remember, an officer has resigned already, because of the investigation of this case. You know, they wanted to have their pictures taken with him. It goes to the culture of these entitled athletes that we have. They go - not a lot of them. This is an isolated case. I don't want to smear or generalize.

But there are these entitled athletes who go around with their entourage and basically shove their weight around, and that's beyond the criminal part of it. If you just read - so I don't think - if Roethlisberger was totally blameless, he would not be facing this suspension nor would he be facing - he would have the owner stand by him.

CONAN: Tim Egan writes about the politics and life as seen from the West on the New York Times "Opinionator" blog. His piece, "Nike's Womens Problem," appeared in yesterday's blog on April 21st. He's with us from Flagstaff, Arizona. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Cliff(ph) is on the line from St. Louis.

CLIFF (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'll have to agree with him, in his assertions there. I mean, the media has come to a point to where one - you know, well, as an example. If a police officer or officers are involved in some kind of an investigation that goes sour, or an event that the causes furor, a lot of times they are suspended - with pay or without pay. So a suspension is not an admission of guilt, nor is it an assertion of guilt. It's an assertion that something has occurred and there needs to be a diligent follow-up.

But where these players are concerned, you were talking about endorsement and what type of social behavior, lawlessness, right, actually causes someone to say I'll take your swoosh away.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CLIFF: And the question is market penetration. How much do we like the guy? What will we put up from - you know, with from this individual? And will it play well as it goes down. We're not about morals and ethics in this country, we're about bottom line and sales.

CONAN: And that's an interesting point. Tiger Woods, whatever you may think of what's gone on in his life and the sincerity of his efforts to come to terms with it, Tiger Woods is central to Nike golf. I mean, he is the absolute face of an entire line of products, and you'd have to suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is just one of many athletes who are involved in selling football shoes.

CLIFF: I agree with you too, and I - if I could say something else about that too. Tiger Woods has a great history as an unbelievably gifted talent and he had some peccadilloes.

CONAN: Now, well, Ben Roethlisberger is a pretty good quarterback. But are you -are we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...interrupted Tim Egan.

Mr. EGAN: Yeah. And Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings and a $102 million contract. And I said in my piece, imagine if he didn't have the two Super Bowl rings and the $102 million contract, but he worked as a teacher - or a cop or a fireman or a professor, and it came out that he was trolling bars with his entourage and doing this sort of behavior. I'm not going to say criminal element, but this sort of behavior...

CONAN: I think you called it thuggish in your piece.

Mr. EGAN: Yeah, I did think it - I think it is thuggish. And I think any honest person who looks at the police report or looks at the cumulative evidence of the - there are actually three cases in the police report; they reference a third case where a woman said when Roethlisberger was intoxicated, he accosted her on two occasions.

So, I mean, there's a pattern in police reports. Women historically have been disrespected in this case, or not believed or - I mean, he's a six-foot-five Super Bowl quarterback with two off-duty cops, and he's in a bar with women who are illegal to even be in bars. He's buying shots for them. These women were underage.

CONAN: Well, again, that's not his problem, that's the bar's problem.

Mr. EGAN: He's buying drinks for these girls. And...

CONAN: Well, the bar is selling them.

Mr. EGAN: Right, that's true.

CONAN: So that's technically not his problem, it's the bar's problem.

Mr. EGAN: Correct, correct. So - but - so, I guess, the question is, what responsibility does he have? He's a community... Once you give someone...

CONAN: Well, I think...

Mr. EGAN: ...you know, endorsements, you give them a little more - you say they're, you know, they don't have to be, quote, "good guys," but you're putting something else into it.

CONAN: They're elevating them in society.

Mr. EGAN: Right, right.

CONAN: But, again, we are talking about Nike's responsibility here. And getting back to Cliff's question, Tiger Woods, central to their product line, maybe Ben Roethlisberger is less central, certainly, it turned out Michael Vick was.

Mr. EGAN: Yeah, Woods - well, that's why I think it wouldn't be that difficult for them to sanction him, to suspend him briefly or to make a statement about this, because it would make a whole lot of other athletes, down the line... I mean, think about this, you have - almost every university in United States have some sort of Nike sponsorship right now. Watch - when you watch a football game this fall or you've looked in March Madness, look at the gym bags, look at what's on the helmets of the football players, or even look at the lacrosse team and you're going to see a swoosh there.

Nike is actively involved in all the schools. And if you were to send a message - that's why I think it's so powerful for them. They could go so far with something like a Roethlisberger sanction. If you were just to send them a message that your behavior, you know, could be a notch above this, it would ripple on down the athletic food chain.

CONAN: Timothy Egan is with us, writes about the views from the west on the New York's Times "Opinionator" blog. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Max(ph) on the line, Max with us from Grand Junction, Colorado.

MAX (Caller): Hi. I thought - I wanted to say that I thought that this also speaks really clearly about rape in our society, because I remember that we'd had a lot of - I mean, I'd heard a lot of conversations about rape in colleges and how it's widely ignored - and I myself am in college right now.

But I think it - I mean, I know that I heard - as soon as I heard about the girl not pressing any charges, I thought, well, nothing really happened and she's just whining because he is popular. But then I went and read the police report and it's pretty evident what happened...

Mr. EGAN: Isn't that amazing? I'm glad you read the police report. That's what stunned me. The - go ahead. I'm glad you did that.

MAX: Oh, yeah. Well, I read that and I cannot believe, even though, after reading this, that we can't press charges against him or do anything ourselves because of shoddy police work. It's very evident what happened. And I don't think it's just about on the NFL, I also think it's about rape. I mean, as a society, when people - women get raped, we kind of shove it aside.

CONAN: I'm not going to disagree with you, Max, although I think we have to take the prosecutor's judgment here that there's a difference between what seems evident to us as laypeople and the preponderance of evidence, and what a prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom.

Mr. EGAN: Correct. There's also reason in how police treat victims and suspects when they're celebrities.

CONAN: True.

Mr. EGAN: And it - and that's pretty apparent in reading this police report. I mean, these cops ended up having their pictures taken with the guy and asked for his autograph, and missed a whole bunch of evidence. And, you know, if it was you or I - the police were called to this thing, would we be treated the same way? Of course not.

And I'm glad this caller said this, because that's sort of one of the subtext issues none of us wants to go there. But it's celebrity, which - celebrity enhanced, in this case, by Nike - versus average person who is, you know, somewhat entranced by a celebrity - we all are. Football is glamorized. You know, athletic feats are glamorized. And I'm a huge sports nut myself. I love watching sports and consider myself an athlete. But when you bring the police into this thing, it changes it, you know, it changes the way they view him.

I'm so glad she read that because I - that's what turned my stomach, as soon as I read the report, I thought of what it's like to be a 20-year-old waking up, sobering up, you know, in a hospital room while they're taking tests of you and you're trying to recall how you even got into this situation, and your word against the athlete's word.

MAX: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

MAX: Yeah. And I knew - know a lot of police officers, and I know that it's kind of a boy's club, and they're often people who came out of playing sports themselves. And so I understand their whole treating celebrities differently.

CONAN: Yeah. It doesn't mean they don't control the crime scene and allow the janitor in with the Clorox to scrub it out eight hours after the allegations are made.

MAX: Yeah.

Mr. EGAN: Right. Right.

CONAN: Anyway, Max, thanks very much for the phone call.

MAX: You're welcome.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Denise(ph) and Denise is with us from - is it Heber in Utah?

DENISE (Caller): Yes, Heber.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DENISE: Well, I just want to say what you pretty much already said, is that the bottom line, the power lies with the consumer as far as just not buying Nike products. I mean, that's all we can really do. But I think, you know, it would make a difference and it makes a difference also if just viewers of professional sports, I mean, these athletes are paid astronomical salaries because we go out to the games, we watch it on television. And, you know, I'm disgusted.

I'm, you know, as a woman I'm just completely disgusted with this situation. And I've been threatening not to watch - I'm a big NFL fan and I've been threatening just to stop watching because it seems like, you know, there's always one of them getting into trouble, doing something horrific. And because they have these images and these huge salaries, they get this mindset that they can do whatever they want just like what Tiger said.

CONAN: Oh, that's -

Mr. EGAN: Well, there's -

CONAN: Go ahead, Tim, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Mr. EGAN: Yeah. I was going to say I think the NFL has handled this stuff fairly well. They're trying to get ahead on this unlike basketball, and to a lesser degree, baseball. They're trying to set a code of conduct, which many people say is oxymoronic for professional athletes. You know, these athletes start out being coddled when they're in little league. I mean, coached little league for years and years and years, and the stud player, whether - I've coached girls and boys - is the one that can kind of get away with stuff. So it starts very young in our culture, and it goes real high.

My point I was trying to make in the column was, it has to stop somewhere. And somebody who can really, really move the culture bar a little bit is a big, popular, powerful force like Nike. Forget about getting this out of your community or out of your parents, or this or that. I think someone like Nike can really move the culture on this thing.

Now, here's the question I have for all of your listeners, of course. I mean, I'm just baffled by this. Maybe I don't understand marketing. Will Nike really sell more of these Marauder cleats that Roethlisberger endorses because - I mean, despite this or because of this? Does that enhance his cred? I don't get that. I don't get that.

CONAN: That's the question we have to wait and see.

Mr. EGAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Denise, thank you very much for the phone call. I guess another question, this did - the suspension just happened yesterday, the meeting with the commissioner; just last week, the decision by the (unintelligible). But Nike has had some time to deal with this, so it's - they've had time to prepare, just as everybody else has. It's not coming as any great surprise to them. So we'll have to see what they decide to do and whether they issue a statement.

Tim Egan, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. EGAN: Oh, thanks for having me. It's a great subject.

CONAN: Timothy Egan writes about politics and life as seen from the west on The New York Times' "Opinionator" blog. His - that column, "Nike's Women Problem," ran yesterday.

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