Nike has suspended its endorsement of Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, the company told CNBC on Wednesday.
“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, ”Nike said in a statement.
The first woman who accused Watson of sexual misconduct while receiving private massages spoke publicly on Tuesday. Ashley Solis said she was suffering from “panic attacks, anxiety and depression” as a result of Watson’s alleged sexual assault in March 2020. She demanded that Watson be held accountable for her alleged behavior.
Watson and attorney Rusty Hardin denied the allegations, saying the allegations resulted from a failed blackmail attempt. The National Football League quarterback has been charged with sexual misconduct in lawsuits brought by 22 women, all represented by attorney Tony Buzbee.
And on April 2, the Houston Police Department tweeted that it had opened a criminal investigation after a complaint was filed against Watson. With its issues off the pitch, other Watson backers like Apple’s Beats by Dre brand may need to respond soon. A representative for Beats by Dre did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With Nike’s response, other brands may soon have to respond, even partially, as allegations against the soccer star escalate.
“Brands are in a tough spot right now,” said Scott Rosner, academic director of the Sports Management program at Columbia University. “There will clearly be public pressure as there usually is in these types of cases to formally disassociate from the athlete. And some are likely to do so. Others will make a statement expressing their concern but reiterating their belief in the legal process. “
Will race play a role?
Rosner, an expert in brand strategies, agreed with comparisons of Watson’s problems with former NFL star Michael Vick and current Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger.
All top NFL quarterbacks in their prime but hurt by legal issues off the field. But brands reacted differently.
In Vick’s case, he pleaded guilty and was convicted of his crimes; therefore, the endorsers let it down. But Roethlisberger was twice charged with sexual misconduct in 2009 and 2010. He was never charged in either case and settled down with the victim who accused him of an alleged rape.
But brands, including Nike, stuck with Roethlisberger despite the allegations. Roethlisberger has been suspended for four games for violating NFL personal conduct policy, something Watson could also face even if he avoids criminal charges.
“It’s an appropriate and fair question to ask,” Rosner said of race playing a role in determining Watson’s situation with brands.
“It is difficult to know the impact of the breed in this particular case or that of Roethlisberger,” Rosner added. “But in general, I think we can say that race is generally a factor, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously taken into account. This is an obvious difference between the two cases. We’ll see if this leads to different treatment.
Is the marketing damaged?
Watson, 25, is expected to earn $ 10 million for the coming season. He signed a four-year extension worth $ 156 million ($ 73 million guaranteed), starting in 2022, raising his salary to $ 35 million that season. He is represented by the Athletes First agency.
But the question is whether he will be in Houston. Watson asked the team for a trade before his legal issues began. Rosner said brands should take this into account as well.
Like Roethlisberger, if Watson overcomes the bad publicity and is traded to a bigger, more attractive NFL club, the brands that leave could open doors for competition.
“The difficulty in giving up – you score points immediately in the court of public opinion, but if the claims turn out to be false, or if they are unfounded, it is likely that a competitor will rush in and sign the athlete to a deal which you have completed. So there is a risk in that, ”Rosner said.
But Watson’s marketability has taken a hit. And in a social media climate, Rosner said brands that were looking to keep the endorsements with Watson should be concerned with moving forward.
“I would have, as a brand, some trepidation about continuing the relationship,” Rosner said. “But at a minimum, you put off any sort of relationship and come out with a strongly worded comment – at the bare minimum.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Solis alleged that Watson’s sexual assault occurred in March 2020.