BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–“The Reebok kicks, the cornrows, the tattoos–Allen Iverson’s on-court style has long been imitated. Attempting to produce the on-court results of The Answer might prove unattainable, however, ballers and non-ballers alike can now emulate his style away from the game,” sung the Reebok press release in April.
The company’s lingo-loaded marketing campaign rested on the reputation of Iverson, the 2000-01 National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player and the sneaker company’s most valuable endorser. Recent events, however, have raised the question of what actions companies should take when a celebrity’s “style away from thegame” clearly should not be emulated.
Less than three months after the above press release was issued, promoting the company’s most recent line of Iverson-brand apparel, the Philadelphia 76ers’ star guard known as “The Answer” was arrested and charged with 14 counts of assault and terrorist threats. After physically throwing his wife, Tawanna, out of their multi-million dollar Philadelphia home–“in the manner of an aggrieved Fred Flintstone putting out the cat,” as writer Steve Rushin put it in the July 29 edition of Sports Illustrated–Iverson later barged into his cousin’s apartment in search of her, allegedly in possession of a gun.
Reebok’s spokesmen immediately came to Iverson’s defense, claiming he was being unjustly targeted due to his celebrity.
This does not surprise Mel Poole, president of the North Carolina-based sports-marketing consulting agency SponsorLogic. He says few companies are willing to take a moral or ethical stand when their brand is so firmly rooted to a particular personality.
“I don’t think Reebok minds the controversy Iverson brings,” said Poole, who has never worked with the company. “They knew what they were getting when they signed him. They’re banking on Iverson’s bad-boy image. They want him to be a little bad, but not too, too bad. It’s a tricky line.”
A Gun and a $50 Million Deal
Reebok, the 44-year-old Massachusetts-based sneaker and sports apparel company, signed Iverson to a 10-year, $50 million sponsorship deal in 1996. One year later, Iverson pleaded no contest to gun-possession charges, and in 2000 he recorded a rap album littered with derogatory references toward women and homosexuals. In the song “40 Bars,” Iverson recorded the following lyrics:
“Everybody stay fly get money kill and f— bitches
I’m hittin anything in plain view for my riches “
Reebok extended Iverson’s sponsorship contract last year to “a lifetime deal” worth an undisclosed amount of money and recently built an entire marketing strategy around his hip-hop image geared toward attracting inner-city youth.
The gamble has apparently paid off. Twelve of the 14 charges against Iverson were dropped at a preliminary hearing July 29–due largely to conflicting testimony by the two men in the apartment at the time–with only two misdemeanor counts of making threats remaining. A trial date has been set for Sept. 18. According to the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s office, no charges of domestic abuse were ever filed against Iverson because his wife refused to press charges and police apparently determined there was insufficient probable cause to charge Iverson.
Meanwhile, second-quarter sales of Reebok’s basketball footwear increased by 37 percent over the same period last year, largely due to the Iverson brand. The company’s U.S. footwear division amassed $249 million in sales in the recently concluded second quarter.
At the same time, Reebok’s Web site proclaims: “At Reebok, we’re passionate about human rights. One of the first companies to walk the talk by pulling out of South Africa during apartheid, we also lead the movement to implement socially responsible business programs . . . We also make it our business to honor young activists who make the world a better place. Why do we make these efforts? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because our bottom line is nothing if we don’t make freedom our top priority.”
Reebok also offers a full range of women’s sports apparel and sneakers–paying tennis star Venus Williams approximately $38 million over five years to sponsor much of the line. Company executives declined to comment for this article.
Hero Worship of Idols with Clay Feet and Worse
Reebok is not the only athletic manufacturer finding itself in such a moral conundrum. Nike sponsors point guard Jason Kidd, who was arrested for domestic abuse last year and later traded from the Phoenix Suns to the New Jersey Nets. But no athlete means more to a company than Iverson does to Reebok.
Juley Fulcher says Reebok’s continued backing of Iverson sends a dangerous message to the many youngsters who purchase the company’s apparel featuring his name, style and likeness. The public policy director for the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, based in Colorado, also points out that Reebok’s image isn’t helped by its affiliation with Grammy-award-winning singer R. Kelley. The company signed the musician to perform alongside Iverson in its “Sounds and Rhythm of Sport” advertising campaign, kicked off earlier this year. In June, Kelley was arrested in Florida on 21 counts of child pornography for allegedly filming himself having sex with an under-age girl.
“It’s very, very disconcerting how these stars are idolized by young boys and men and treated like heroes who we should be like,” said Fulcher. “It’s disturbing to see these kinds of examples, but more disturbing is that the public doesn’t hold them accountable.
“There’s a common problem in this country in that domestic violence is not considered to be as serious a crime as others,” she added. “There are a full range of injuries that can occur and maybe because of that there’s a tendency among the public to see it as a less serious crime.”
Although it didn’t charge Iverson with domestic assault, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s office says it reports nearly 100 domestic violence claims each week and at least 45,000 women are battered in Philadelphia each year.
From a sports-marketing perspective, SponsorLogic’s Poole says those numbers mean little. “I honestly don’t think personal issues matter to consumers,” he said. “They see a style they like, an athlete they identify with and buy the product.”
Which puts the impetus on society to set the right moral tone, Fulcher said.
“If there is a public outcry, it will have an impact on a company,” she said. “But it’s a shame there has to be a public outcry for a company to do the right thing.”
Celebrity Plays a Role in Determining Outcome
Peter Roby, the new director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and former vice president of U.S. marketing for Reebok, is quick to point out that troubled athletes such as Iverson are the exception in sports, not the norm. And although Roby says he was disappointed that his former company so quickly jumped to Iverson’s defense this past July–while showing no public concern for the star’s wife–he does agree that celebrity played a major role in the amount of attention the case has garnered.
“To me, that’s the shame of it all,” said Roby, a former head coach of the Harvard University men’s basketball team. “Women who are abused by non-celebrities are just as important as the women who are abused by celebrities. There are far more non-celebrities committing these crimes, but we don’t hear about them.”
Jeff O’Brien, director of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, agrees with his boss. But he also believes that celebrity abuse cases invaluably help further public discourse on a subject that has long been ignored. “OJ Simpson put domestic abuse on the map for this country,” said O’Brien, who counsels student and professional athletes and coaches throughout the country. “But it also made the public think that all athletes are abusive.”
To be sure, a recent rash of domestic abuse cases involving athletes have earned ample press over the past year.
In July, racecar driver Al Unser Jr. was arrested in Indianapolis after hitting his girlfriend in the face and abandoning her on the side of a highway in the middle of the night. Marion County prosecutors later dropped the charges, saying there was not enough evidence from the 911 call, statements and photographs to convict the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Prosecutors have repeatedly denied that Unser’s celebrity had anything to do with their decision.
Also in July, Milwaukee Bucks forward and NBA All-Star Glenn Robinson was arrested in Chicago Heights, Ill., on charges of domestic battery, assault and illegal possession of a gun after roughing up his ex-fiancee at her home. Two weeks later the Bucks traded Robinson to the Atlanta Hawks, saying the move was a “basketball decision.”
Yet four months earlier the Bucks entered a partnership with Verizon Wireless to raise awareness and reduce incidences of domestic violence through various community events. In a March 15 press release announcing the joint venture, John Steinmiller, vice president of business operations for the Bucks, said, “Domestic violence is a disturbing national and local issue that must be addressed with heightened awareness of its ruinous effects on individuals, families and businesses. No organization or demographic group is immune to occurrences.”
Whatever the true reason for the trade, Roby says he couldn’t agree more with the Bucks’ message.
“We need everyone who works with and talks to young people to set the right tone,” said Roby. “People in positions of authority can make a difference. It can be the leadership of corporate America, teachers, coaches who work with young boys, parents. We need to get the word out that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”
Jeff Lemberg is a freelance writer living in Boston.
For more information:
Center for the Study of Sport in Society–
Mentors in Violence Prevention Program:
National Coalition against Domestic Violence: