There’s an interesting paradox in major league sports. Athletes can get bad press for bad behavior. Or get pulled over for DUI’s. They can carry unlicensed weapons, organize dogfights, and even, sometimes, get away with murder. But if they are talented enough – have a great 3-point shot, or a 97-MPH fastball, or can manage 5 yards a carry – fans are likely to forgive them their trespasses. And brands are still willing to pay millions of dollars for their name on a piece of equipment, a jersey, a tee-shirt, or a shoe. But when it comes to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, that’s where fans and brands draw the line. And Nike did.
In light of Lance Armstrong’s admission that he “juiced” in order to win his seven Tour de France titles, Nike announced they were discontinuing the Livestrong line of apparel and shoes.
So here’s the irony: it’s OK to cheat on your wife, but not on the game. Why one and not the other? Yes, yes, there’s the “everyone-is-entitled-to-make-a mistake” syndrome that kicks in for lots of bad conduct. But this is different. These are the Majors, with a capital ‘M.’ The Big Show. These guys are supposed to be the best of the best, and with fan loyalty driven by 4 category aspects (1. wins and losses, excitement of play, 2. history and tradition, 3. Fan Bonding, and 4. Authenticity), when athletes screw-up that last one, it usually kills the emotional connection with the fans and the financial connection with the brand much faster than a 97-MPH pitch.
Fans emotionally and financially invest in these athletes, brands even more, at least financially, and name recognition isn’t what they’re paying for. Both are investing in, well, what’s authentic. What’s real. What’s heroic. They pay for what’s supposed to be a natural skill-set with which few athletes are blessed or have developed. It’s supposed to come unadulterated. So when it comes out that an athlete was using performance-enhancing drugs, aka, “cheating,” there’s generally real fallout. Hence the decision by Nike.
So steroids equal cheating and when professional athletes cheat, that it can’t help but put a question mark in fans’ and sponsors’ minds, if not an asterisk in the records. And in all businesses, including sports, question marks never engender loyalty.