Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is the tree, reputation is the shadow.” Today, all kinds of pundits will be writing about Nike’s decision to suspend their agreement with Olympian Oscar Pistorius as a reputation-saving move. Heck, I’ve written about Nike and their tendency to stand behind their athletes before. They stuck with Tiger Woods through marital infidelity. And with Lance Armstrong long after reason suggested they shouldn’t.
Nike watchers might have expected them to stick with their Olympian, too. Is the reputational risk of standing by an accused murderer who describes himself as the “bullet in the chamber” a greater risk for the brand than a doper, a cheater or an animal abuser? Nike has demonstrated that they are not afraid of controversy, or even criminal convictions (they were the first to re-sign Michael Vick after he returned to the NFL). Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, LeBron James – all sparked controversy, and all received Nike’s support.
So what’s different? Is Nike doing the right thing, guided by their values? Or is this just another headline-grabbing opportunity for the brand?
I don’t have an inside view of Nike, but they do a great job of articulating a sense of true business purpose and values that guide their decisions. It would be easy to defend a decision to stick with Pistorius based on a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But sometimes, you have to trust your gut…and sticking by Pistorius just feels wrong. A call like that isn’t to grab headlines, or even to preserve their reputation. It is a demonstration of Nike’s character.