Nike has suspended the endorsement of Houston Texan quarterback Deshaun Watson, the company told CNBC on Wednesday. Apple’s Beats by Dre brand also said it has ended its endorsement deal with Watson.
“We are deeply concerned about the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson. We will continue to monitor the situation closely,” Nike said in a statement. A Beats representative has not made a statement.
The first woman to accuse Watson of sexual misconduct while receiving private massages spoke public on tuesday. Ashley Solis said she is suffering from “panic attacks, anxiety and depression” as a result of Watson’s alleged assault in March 2020. She requested that Watson be held accountable for his alleged behaviour.
Watson and attorney Rusty Hardin have denied the allegations that the claims are the result of a failed blackmail attempt. National Football League quarterback has been charged with sexual misconduct in lawsuits submitted by 22 women, all represented by attorney Tony Buzbee.
Houston Police Department tweeted Friday that it is opening a criminal investigation over a complaint against Watson.
“The brands are in a difficult situation right now,” said Scott Rosner, academic director of the sports management program at Columbia University. “Obviously there will be public pressure, as there is usually in cases like this, to formally distance themselves from the athlete. And some probably will. Others will make a statement expressing concern but reiterate their belief in the legal process .”
Rosner, a brand strategy expert, agreed with comparisons of Watson’s troubles with former NFL star Michael Vick and Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger.
Those top-tier NFL quarterbacks were in their prime but were hurt by legal troubles off the field. Brands reacted differently.
In Vick’s case, he pleaded guilty to dogfighting and his supporters dropped him. But Roethlisberger was twice charged with sexual misconduct in 2009 and 2010. He was not charged in either case and regularly with the victim who accused him of rape.
But brands, including Nike, stayed with Roethlisberger despite the accusations. Roethlisberger was suspended four games for violation of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, which Watson could face even if he avoids criminal charges.
“It’s an appropriate and fair question to ask,” Rosner said of race that played a factor in determining Watson’s situation with brands. Roethlisberger is white and Watson is black. But Watson has more accusers than Roethlisberger, which brands also need to consider. Roethlisberger has faced charges from one woman, while Watson is charged by 22, and those charges come in the context of the #MeToo movement.
“It’s difficult to know the impact of race in this particular case or in Roethlisberger’s case,” Rosner added. “But in general I think we can say that race is typically a factor, consciously or unconsciously. It’s a clear difference between the two cases. We’ll see if it leads to a different treatment.”
Watson, 25, is slated to make $10 million for the upcoming season. He signed a four-year extension worth $156 million ($73 million guaranteed), starting in 2022, increasing his salary to $35 million that season. He is represented by Athletes First agency.
But whether he will be in Houston remains to be seen. Watson requested to be traded before his legal troubles started. Rosner said brands should take this into account as well.
Like Roethlisberger, if Watson overcomes the bad publicity and he is traded to a bigger market club with more appeal, brands that walk away can open doors to competition.
“The difficulty of falling – you score points right away in the court of public opinion, but if the allegations turn out to be false, or they are not substantiated, then it is likely that a competitor will come in and sign the athlete to a deal that you canceled, so there’s a risk in that,” Rosner said.
But Watson’s marketability has taken a hit. And in a social media climate, Rosner said brands looking to maintain Watson’s endorsement should worry about moving forward.
“As a brand, I would have some fear of continuing the relationship,” Rosner said. “But at the very least you break off any relationship and come out with a strongly worded commentary — at a bare minimum.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Solis claimed Watson’s assault took place in March 2020.