Racism, Homophobia & Apathy: The Sports Stars Ruining Their Own Reputations & How Sponsors Can Respond

Racism, Homophobia & Apathy: The Sports Stars Ruining Their Own Reputations & How Sponsors Can Respond

For as long as there have been prominent sports professionals, scandals have threatened to destroy their reputations. The damage of these scandals stretches beyond a lost job and a stain on a team’s reputation; there is enormous backlash for brands associated with those in question.

Over the last few months, there has been no shortage of controversy surrounding some of the biggest sporting stars in the world, from Sam Kerr’s racism allegations to Spencer Leniu taking a significant ban for a racist comment against a fellow player on the field. The allegations leave brands scrambling to make major calls often before a trial can be played out in a court of law.

In the last week, controversy has swirled around South Sydney Rabbitohs star Latrell Mitchell after he copped a multi-match ban for two separate incidents on the field. The star was also handed a slap on the wrist a few weeks back when he dropped multiple f-bombs in a post-match interview with Triple M. Many are calling for the player to be more permanently sidelined, with many claiming he doesn’t care enough about the game to continue to have the right to play it. These allegations put hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of brand endorsements, including Ringers Western and Bluetti, at risk.

Controversy has also surrounded Port Adelaide forward Jeremy Finlays, who allegedly flung a homophobic slur at an Essendon player in last Friday’s match. While Finlayson apologised for the incident, AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon promised that the forward would be held accountable for the slur that was picked up on the umpire’s mic.

Brands endorse a player or team with the hope that they will represent it with the utmost integrity, so what happens when this goes wrong? According to Mark Forbes, Director of Reputation at Icon Agency, a major scandal can erase the marketing and brand benefits of a high-profile sports sponsorship. “A media and social media pile-on can cause customer, stakeholder and internal reputational damage and impact sales. This is especially true of ‘purpose-driven’ companies which have adopted brand values such as condemning racism and supporting diversity,” he said.

So, how do brands react? Nick Foley, director at Intangify, said that brand custodians should avoid knee-jerk reactions when dealing with the fallout of actions taken by celebrities who behave in a way that is incongruent with the brand sponsoring them. But, of course, no action at all could be equally detrimental to a brand.

“Brands play in the court of public opinion so that should always be top of mind when considering how best to respond to controversial behaviour. The speed at which social media moves means marketers need to be equipped with a clear and coherent plan in the event of a crisis” said Foley. “Pausing or suspending a sponsorship until all the facts are known is wise and should take precedence over wholesale cancellation”.

Forbes agrees that while the issues themselves play out in a court of law, it is the court of public opinion that really counts for brands – it often comes down to the severity of the reaction and the allegations themselves. “It’s hard to imagine a brand standing by an athlete accused of rape,” he said.

There is no way for brands to truly predict which athletes or teams to align with. Sure, avoiding renowned bad boys or girls of the sport is a no-go, but who would have predicted Sam Kerr would be involved in a racism scandal? Due diligence is essential before investment, but the reality is that sometimes, these things will still come up, and it is up to brands to ensure they are dealing with it in a timely and appropriate manner.

“When scandals happen, it’s how you respond that counts. Appearing fair, considered and supportive can have brand benefits, too, and even if allegations are substantiated, reputations can survive by expressing remorse and promising remediation. That said, some behavioural lines should not be crossed; the challenge is identifying that point amid crisis,” Forbes said.

“When brands are created, significant effort goes into positioning. Implicit in this is determining the core beliefs and values that underpin the brand. Marketers would be wise to ensure there is a level of alignment between the personality and the respective brand. Rolex’s sponsorship of Roger Federer is a useful example of an appropriate fit between the brand and its brand ambassador,” said Foley.




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