Pacquiao, Sharapova are not the first to fall out with Nike

Ryan Songalia

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Pacquiao, Sharapova are not the first to fall out with Nike
Look back at the athletes Nike has dropped - and stuck by - through controversy

MANILA, Philippines – Nike has made more headlines recently for athletes it is no longer working with than for the athletes they’re maintaining relationships with.

In the span of a few weeks, the American sportswear giant has severed ties with 8-division boxing champion Manny Pacquiao due to comments he made against gay marriage that they described as “abhorrent,” and “suspended” its relationship with tennis player Maria Sharapova on Tuesday, March 8 after she announced that she tested positive for the banned substance Meldonium at this year’s Australian Open.

(READ: Manny Pacquiao deserves a second chance)

Meldonium is used to treat ischemia but was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances this year “because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.”

The drug is manufactured in Latvia and is not approved for use in the United States. Sharapova was born in Russia but has lived in the United States since 1994.

“We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova,” said a Nike statement. Porsche followed suit and suspended Sharapova pending further details about the incident while watchmaker TAG Heuer said it would not be renewing its contract with the 28-year-old 5-time Grand Slam champ.

Endorsement deals are important to major athletes; some make millions of dollars by affixing their names to products. And for an athlete, no sponsorship deal can be more intimate than the apparel they wear on their bodies. 

For a corporate brand with its hands in nearly every sport, image is everything.

Nike has in the past stuck with some of its athletes through hard times, like when Kobe Bryant was charged with rape in 2003, a month after signing a deal with the shoe brand worth $9 million (charges were ultimately dropped and the two have collaborated on a number of successful shoes); and golfer Tiger Woods, whose highly publicized extra-marital affairs scandal in 2009 was called “a minor blip” by Nike’s chairman. The company even used it as the premise of a commercial where Woods hears advice from his late-father Earl.

Pacquiao and Sharapova aren’t the only athletes whom have been on bad terms with Nike. Here is a list of athletes who have signed deals with Nike – only to see them nullified when controversy struck.

The list

Among the other athletes who have seen deals with Nike come and go on controversial terms are track and field athletes Marion Jones, Oscar Pistorius and Justin Gatlin, NFL players Michael Vick, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice, football player Joey Barton, plus cyclist Lance Armstrong. 

Armstrong, Gatlin and Jones, like Sharapova, lost their deals due to doping scandals, while Vick, Rice, Pistorius, Barton and Peterson lost theirs due to criminal charges.

Among them, only Gatlin and Vick recovered their relationships with Nike and signed new deals. Pacquiao is the only athlete whose deal was publicly terminated by Nike due to a scandal which did not involve criminal charges or a doping scandal.

Of all the athletes who have lost their deals with Nike, only Michael Vick (R) and Justin Gatlin (L) have returned to the Nike flock. Vick photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images/AFP, Gatlin photo by IAAF

Armstrong, whose Livestrong brand was carried by Nike until 2013, fell from grace after his history of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) was revealed in a United States Anti-Doping Agency probe.

Nike initially stuck by Armstrong before dropping him, saying it “does no condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in any manner.” 

Armstrong was subsequently stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles and reportedly lost $75 million in endorsements in one day after all of his sponsors dropped him.

Jones, who starred in a number of popular commercials for Nike, was stripped of her 3 gold medals and two bronzes from the 2000 Olympics after it was revealed she had used the steroid cream known as “the clear” following the investigation into the BALCO laboratory. Jones eventually served 6 months in prison for lying to federal investigators about her drug use.

Gatlin, who returned to headlines this week after unofficially breaking Usain Bolt’s 100m record on a Japanese television show, was banned from international competition for a year in 2001 for a positive amphetamine test.

The sentence was originally slated for two years but was reduced after he argued the substance was to treat attention deficit disorder. The United States Anti-Doping Agency even said “Mr. Gatlin neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat.”

That wasn’t the case in 2006 when he was slapped with a 4-year ban (after arbitrating it down from 8) for testing positive for a “testosterone imbalance.” In between scandals Gatlin won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, and after serving his ban he signed a new deal with Nike.

Michael Vick lost his deal with Nike due to his involvement in a dog-fighting ring in 2007 but was re-signed in 2011 after rebuilding his career with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We do not condone those actions, but we support the positive changes he has made to better himself off the field,” a Nike spokesperson said after welcoming Vick back into the fold.

Minnesota Vikings running back Peterson was dropped in 2014 after pleading no-contest to misdemeanor reckless assault after striking his 4-year-old son with a “switch.” He had a successful return to the NFL last season and has since signed a deal with Adidas.

The double-amputee Pistorius was initially suspended by Nike after being charged with murdering his girlfriend before being dropped outright in 2014 following his conviction for culpable murder. In a chilling piece of irony, Pistorius was once described as a “bullet in the chamber” in a Nike ad.

The same week, Nike disassociated itself with former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after video of him striking his future wife and dragging her unconscious body from an elevator emerged.

Barton saw his deal with Nike canceled after the then-Newcastle United FC player served 77 days of a 6-month sentence following a drunken brawl in 2007 in which he punched one man approximately 20 times and injured another teenager.

“Whilst Joey Barton is a talented footballer, we cannot condone or accept what he did and his contract with us has been terminated,” a Nike spokesperson was quoted by Telegraph.


Falling out with Nike isn’t always the end of the road, as shown above, though doping scandals appear the hardest to rebound from. The recent banning of the substance Sharapova tested positive for, coupled with her pre-emptive announcement which enabled her to get ahead of the story, may bode well for her road back, provided she isn’t hit with a lengthy ban by the International Tennis Federation.

Meanwhile for Pacquiao, he says his fight in April with Timothy Bradley Jr will be his last, and his future interests seem more rooted in politics than sports. –

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