Selling of athletes starting to smell like an old Nike

September 15, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

As Cal Ripken Jr. took his famous victory lap around Camden Yards on the night he broke Lou Gehrig's record, the words "Just Do It" blinked in huge letters on the side of the Holiday Inn that can be seen from the box seats.

As Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi battled on TV in the U.S. Open finals last Sunday, interrupted mostly by commercials starring Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, you had to wonder if you were watching a championship match or a Nike info-mercial.

Five days after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones announced on "Monday Night Football" that he had accepted a big wad of sponsor- ship money from Nike, he signed Deion Sanders, Nike's second-most famous client, to a $35 million contract, proving that a salary cap is no deterrent when the corporate boys really want something.

Nike, Nike, Nike.

As much as last week was big for Ripken, Sampras, Agassi, Sanders and the Cowboys, no one had a bigger week than Nike, the shoe company based in Oregon, which pays each of those stars (and Monica Seles, don't forget her) to sell its products.

Nike was everywhere last week, the common thread running through all the headlines. The way things were going, I wouldn't have been surprised to find a Nike "swoosh" made out of noodles in the bowl of chicken soup I ate for lunch one day.

Of course, then the soup would have been twice as expensive.

Nike's big week was just big business at work, of course. And it was just a coincidence that all these events in different sports came down in the same week.

But it still reeked.

It was a week in which selling began to seem more important than winning, and maybe it really is now, and that's ugly.

The "Just Do It" sign flashing on the Holiday Inn effectively soiled the best moment of the year in sports, but that was just one cheesy interlude that few people noticed. The real problem is the larger picture, the selling -- and selling out -- of athletes that has become nonstop, ever-present and overwhelming.

Nike isn't solely to blame, of course. Not nearly. Dozens of other companies are out there angling for a piece of a mega-billion dollar pie, using jocks to sell shoes, sports drinks, fast food, cars and everything else this side of a toilet seat.

A lot of the commercial work is clever and alluring, but, as with the smart, cynical ads selling cigarettes to kids, there is a price.

Sports used to be about winning and losing, but it is fast becoming just another entertainment "vehicle," which is a word they use in Hollywood. The money is big and the pub is good and the sell is no longer just a sideshow, it's a main attraction.

That's a problem. To the new generation of athletes, creating a hip, lucrative cult of personality is more important than accomplishing something on the field or court. When a young athlete says he wants to "be like Mike," does he mean he wants to win championships or be famous and make cool commercials? Why, he wants to be cool and famous, of course. How can winning some lousy championship compare with that? That's boring!

Besides, Michael Jordan makes 10 times as much from his endorsements as he does from the Chicago Bulls. People aren't stupid.

The bright lights of the sell haven't affected Jordan or Ripken, fortunately, but the problem is that basic, old-fashioned sports values such as loyalty, teamwork and commitment are being undermined by this onslaught of salesmanship. It's discouraging to watch.

Who is loyal anymore? Why should a player feel any loyalty to his team and teammates when his shoe company is making him rich and famous? Remember what Alonzo Mourning said as a rookie when asked whether he worked for Nike or the Charlotte Hornets. "Nike," he said, without hesitating. And what was just as troubling was that no one seemed to care.

Teamwork? How can a coach expect a player to feel good about making the extra pass or moving the runner along when the path to fame (and making cool commercials) is being different, standing out in the crowd? Dennis Rodman was once one of the great team players, but now he is just a divisive cartoon. He isn't nearly as crazy as he seems. He's just trying to become rich and famous. And succeeding.

Commitment? Well, how can these stars really burn inside when they're getting rich and famous without winning?

Shaquille O'Neal hasn't won a championship ring yet, but do you think he'll be troubled for the rest of his life if it never happens? He's already a huge success, a corporate heavyweight, a TV personality, a singer, a movie star. The world is his oyster. He wants to win, sure. But winning championships isn't that important anymore. Cool, huh?

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