As Timothy Egan points out in today's Times, Nike is one of the few sponsors to stick by Tiger Woods. The company is also retaining an even more questionable sport star: Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger was accused of raping a woman in Lake Tahoe last summer. He denied the accusation and no criminal charges were filed, but now a 20-year-old college student has alleged that he encouraged her and her friends to take shots at a Milledgeville, Ga. bar, then had his bodyguard "escort" her into a hallway, whereupon Roethlisberger raped her. Again, no charges have been filed (Egan blames poor police work for this), but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has taken the situation seriously enough to suspend Roethlisberger for six games without pay. Not taking the situation as seriously: Nike.
Egan takes Nike to task for continuing to consider Roethlisberger part of their "roster of athletes," though they ousted Michael Vick from said roster for dogfighting. Writes Egan,
After Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to running a felony dog-fighting ring, Nike took action. "We consider any cruelty to animals inhumane and unacceptable," the company said at the time.
But cruelty to women is O.K.
Nike's backing of Roethlisberger is surprising, Egan writes, because the company also has a stellar record of sponsoring female athletes. He says,
At the company headquarters in Oregon, Nike helps obscure female athletes train and find a community of equally motivated women.
That's one message from Nike. The other is: It's O.K. for a buffoon of a man to disrespect women, so long as he continues to throw a football well.
But Nike isn't the only source of mixed messages on Roethlisberger. It's worth noting that since he hasn't been charged, we can't state with confidence that he's committed a crime. Yet several sportswriters (Egan a notable exception) seem to be taking the position that even if he were charged, the rape of a young woman would be more like an indiscretion. Wrote Peter King back in March,
[I]f Roethlisberger is without fault, it still is utterly preposterous he puts himself in these situations. If Roethlisberger is without fault, he has to re-think who he associates with, and he has to re-think whether it's a very good idea to be hanging around college bars at 2 in the morning. If Roethlisberger is at fault, the issues are entirely different. If he's at fault, he has got to grow up. So we'll see.
Grow up? Not, "go to jail?"
And speaking yesterday of the media coverage of the Roethlisberger scandal, Jason Whitlock writes,
It was completely irresponsible. Statements made by drunken sorority girls are not facts. Statements made by sober sorority girls about an evening spent bar-hopping and drinking are not facts.
Then he plays the fake-rape-allegation card:
Some young women use alcohol as an excuse to be sexually aggressive at fraternity houses and nightclubs and then quickly concoct a story of sexual assault when confronted by their disapproving peers. Most of these allegations never make it to police headquarters. The allegations are too sketchy and the accuser's immediate jury of peers reject them.
Again, Roethlisberger hasn't been charged. But if it's unfair to assume he's guilty, it's just as unfair to summarily accuse his alleged victim of "concocting a story" — especially if Egan's right that the reason for the lack of charges is police incompetence and not the "sketchiness" of the allegation. According to Whitlock, the real reason Roethlisberger should be suspended is that by drinking with sorority girls, he "placed himself in a vulnerable position." Whitlock seems to have things backwards.
It's a serious shame that we won't see the case resolved in a court of law, and that everything we say about it must thus have the flavor of speculation. It's also true, however, that when multiple women make rape allegations against one of your spokesmen (a third woman accuses Roethlisberger of assaulting her at his house), you have to think about what you're selling. Nike could choose to say that it believes Roethlisberger is innocent, that he remains an uptstanding athlete and a good representative of their brand. Or it could drop him. By doing neither, it sends the message that it just doesn't care.
Nike's Women Problem [NYT]
2nd Woman Says She Was Assaulted By Steelers' QB Roethlisberger [NY Post]
Ten Things I Think I Think [Sports Illustrated]
Big Ben Pays For Wrong-Headed Decisions [Fox Sports]
Big Ban: NFL Suspends Ben Roethlisberger 6 Games [AP]