- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

Sammy Sosa was just about everything a corporation would want in a celebrity endorser. Prodigious home-run hitter playing in a major media market. Classic rags-to-riches story of elevating from poverty to global fame. Winning smile. Genuine sense of humor. Appealing to all major demographics.

The entire package was there, resulting in a group of high-profile endorsements with companies such as Pepsi, Armour Hot Dogs, Easton bats and MasterCard, and a seemingly secure status as one of baseball’s top pitchmen.

But Sosa’s eight-game suspension for using a corked bat, delivered Friday, will stigmatize him — perhaps permanently. The effects of his downfall on celebrity endorsements, however, also promise to manifest themselves much larger in the form of tougher morals clauses in future deals.

Most endorsement contracts today contain a morals clause that allows companies to exit without penalty in the event of an incident by the player that greatly damages the company’s reputation. That “incident” is often limited to some kind of criminal activity, and the legal language can even mandate an actual conviction of a crime before the deal is terminated.

Sosa’s downfall won’t change the sports industry overnight. But in time, sports marketers expect those morals clauses to become much broader and much more strict to include on-field transgressions such as Sosa’s that aren’t criminal but still show a jarring lack of proper judgment.

And the reason for this is clear: For all of Sosa’s positive attributes and accomplishments, Pepsi and all the other companies aligned with him have a weaker promotional figure than they did a week ago.

“When an athlete as popular as Sammy Sosa makes a mistake like this, it probably does ratchet up the concern over these clauses for everybody,” said Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing executive.

Said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a suburban Chicago company that matches celebrities and companies for endorsements: “Some morals clauses already do cover this sort of thing. But, yes, I think we can expect them in general to get both more specific and broad-based in their wording.”

Morals clauses have been a growing part of sports sponsorship for many years. Golf fans will remember Fuzzy Zoeller being dropped by Kmart six years ago after his racially charged comments about Tiger Woods. Basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman ran afoul with several companies, including Converse. Similar fates befell O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and a host of others. Corporations also have been demanding morals clauses from institutions such as the Olympics and individual teams.

In some instances, the clauses also have been placed upon the companies seeking celebrity endorsers, a small trend fueled by the recent spike in high-profile corporate bankruptcies.

A survey conducted six years ago by Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte sports communication and image management company, estimated that nearly half of all endorsement deals had morals clauses included. Now industry estimates start at a minimum of 75 percent, though the variance in the wording of those clauses is significant from deal to deal.

Sosa supporters are quick to say cheating has long been a part of baseball, from spitballs to stealing signs to distracting baserunners. But the current media and fan scrutiny levied upon pro sports and the heavy level of dollars involved in athlete sponsorships suggest that old-fashioned baseball chicanery is simply a much more dangerous game than even 10 years ago.

“Companies are looking for any and every reason to protect themselves,” said Jack Birch of Woolf Associates, a Boston sports and events marketing firm.

The exact language of the morals clauses in Sosa’s endorsement deals is not known. But the strong uniformity in “we’re standing by our man” comments from his companies in recent days suggest that using a corked bat comes nowhere near the threshold of terminating the contracts. Adam Katz, one of Sosa’s agents, said Friday the clauses “haven’t been an issue” during the corked bat furor.

But even without the firm mandate of a morals clause, the sports industry and Sosa himself are in agreement that serious measures of genuine contrition are in order from the Dominican slugger.

“This country has an immense capacity for sports and a similar capacity for forgiveness,” said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “The key for Sammy is, he needs to set the right tone, continue to apologize for what he’s done, and take his lumps in the short term. After that, this story basically dies unless there’s more news, more cork is found. Right now he seems to be getting and following that kind of advice.”

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