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by Dae Ryun Chang
Published by: The Conversation – Harvard Business Review
Date: July 02, 2010
How much control should national and corporate sponsors have over athletes’ behavior both on and off the field? It’s a question that is on the minds of many as they watch the World Cup, especially after the controversial exit of the French team early in the tournament.
The stakes involved in sports can be extremely high, not only because of the honor that it brings to the player, the team, and the country, but also because of the money involved. Annual global sports revenues are expected to exceed $140 billion by 2012. Further, sizable investments are made on national teams and their athletes with the goal of creating positive associations for the country or its corporate sponsors. Sports — and mega events in particular — help in branding a country or a company.
The French soccer team, Les Bleus, had in the past personified to the world its highest ideals, such as its enlightenment, multi-racialism, and patriotism. In a dramatic about-face, the French team has now been labeled the “laughing stock” of World Cup 2010. This happened after a chaotic series of events that included a star player profanely insulting his manager, the player’s expulsion from the squad, a mutiny by the team, losses, and fumbling management by its soccer and government officials.
The soccer scandale has rocked France with scathing commentary about how the fiasco may mirror the current ills of French society, prompting concerns that it could negatively impact how the country is seen abroad. One player bemoaned, “The image we’ve shown to the world, the way they see France now is a disaster.” Not surprisingly, key sponsors of the French soccer team have quickly severed their ties.
Sports sponsorship is by nature a fickle business, given that teams and its stars do not always perform as well as expected. That risk is compounded when athletes lose self-control outside the sporting arena. In the wake of the Tiger Woods sex scandal, sponsors like Accenture and Gillette dropped him using so-called “morality clauses.” The same thing happened after misdeeds by Michael Vick and Michael Phelps.
It would be impractical to issue identical morality clauses for athletes playing for their countries. In a strict sense there is no significant commercial relationship between the professional athlete and the country for which he plays. But perhaps the various sports federations can encourage better conduct by its athletes if firmer “nation-honoring” morality clauses were adopted. For example, countries could install a three-strikes system where players who are judged to have engaged in offensive behavior earn a permanent ban from national team play. This could restore the sporting culture especially among the star athletes that playing for one’s country is a privilege and not an entitlement.
Another line of control may be to manage these athletes through their professional leagues, teams, and its sponsors. Most professional sporting leagues have strict codes of conduct and levy stiff fines for their violation. The National Football League set a strong example when it suspended Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger for 6 games using its new personal conduct policy even though he was legally cleared of alleged sexual assault. John Terry, the captain of Chelsea in the English Premier League faced losing millions in endorsements after revelations of his affair with the partner of a teammate.
If professional leagues, teams, and its sponsors can help in uniformly policing the integrity of its players while on duty, not only for their professional teams but also for their countries, then soccer or other sports may enhance their overall reputations. This is why international governing bodies of each sport, like FIFA, should take the lead in promoting such cooperation.
The power of sports is that its appeal transcends ideological or national boundaries. Sports teams and sport stars become effective channels to reach and influence fans both at home and abroad, which makes their actions on and off the field that much more important. Their success cannot simply be measured by wins and losses, or by how much money they make. More safeguards are needed to ensure that their all around behavior is in the best possible interests of their countries and their sponsors.
This House Would Put A Leash On Their Athletes.