Deshaun Watson # 4 of the Houston Texans runs the ball as Justin Houston # 50 of the Indianapolis Colts attempts the tackle during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 20, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Michael Hickey | fake images
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 closely monitor the situation,” Nike said in a statement.
The first woman to accuse Watson of sexual misconduct while receiving private massages spoke publicly on Tuesday. Ashley Solís said she suffers from “panic attacks, anxiety and depression” due to Watson’s alleged sexual assault in March 2020. She called for Watson to be held accountable for her alleged behavior.
Watson and attorney Rusty Hardin have denied the allegations, saying the allegations are the result of a failed blackmail attempt. The National Football League quarterback has been accused of sexual misconduct in lawsuits brought by 22 women, all represented by attorney Tony Buzbee.
The Houston Police Department tweeted Friday that it opened a criminal investigation after a complaint was filed against Watson.
With Watson’s problems out of the field, his other backers, like Apple’s Beats by Dre brand, might soon need an answer.
“Brands are in a tough spot right now,” said Scott Rosner, academic director of the sports management program at Columbia University. “Clearly there will be public pressure, as there often is in these types of cases, to formally disassociate from the athlete. And it is likely that some will do that. Others will make a statement expressing concern but reiterating their belief in the legal process.”
A representative for Beats by Dre did not immediately return a request for comment.
Will race play a factor?
Rosner, an expert on branding strategies, agreed with the comparisons of Watson’s troubles to former NFL star Michael Vick and Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger.
Those top-tier NFL quarterbacks were in their prime, but they suffered from legal trouble off the field. Brands reacted differently.
In Vick’s case, he pleaded guilty to dogfighting and was abandoned by the sponsors. But Roethlisberger was accused of sexual misconduct twice in 2009 and 2010. He was never charged in either case and reached a settlement with the victim who accused him of rape.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger # 7 passes the ball in the first quarter of the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field on December 27, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Joe Sargent | fake images
But brands, including Nike, stayed with Roethlisberger despite the allegations. Roethlisberger was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, something Watson could also face even if he avoids criminal charges.
“It’s an appropriate and fair question,” Rosner said about race playing a factor in determining Watson’s status with brands. Roethlisberger is white and Watson is black.
“It is difficult to know the impact of race in this particular case or in the case of Roethlisberger,” added Rosner. “But overall, I think we can say that race is typically a factor, whether considered consciously or unconsciously. It’s an obvious difference between the two cases. We’ll see if it leads to a different treatment.”
Is marketability damaged?
Watson, 25, is scheduled to make $ 10 million by next season. He signed a four-year extension worth $ 156 million ($ 73 million guaranteed), starting in 2022, increasing his salary to $ 35 million that season. He is represented by the Athletes First agency.
But the question is whether it will be in Houston. Watson requested that it be negotiated before his legal troubles began. Rosner said brands should take this into account as well.
Like Roethlisberger, if Watson overcomes the bad publicity and is moved to a bigger market club with more appeal, brands that walk away could open doors to competition.
“The difficulty of falling: You get points immediately in the court of public opinion, but if the accusations are proven to be false, or if they are not substantiated, it is likely that a competitor will jump in and sign the athlete in a settlement you are done. So there is some risk in that, “Rosner said.
But Watson’s marketability has suffered. And in a social media climate, Rosner said brands looking to maintain Watson’s endorsement should worry about moving forward.
“I would have, as a brand, some apprehension about continuing the relationship,” Rosner said. “But at the very least, you are suspending any kind of relationship and issuing a forceful comment, at the very least.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Solis allegedly that Watson’s sexual assault occurred in March 2020.