Sports fans get riled up. That's kind of the point of people watching sports, actually. They're a way to get an emotional release without actually having something invested in the outcome. (True spectator sports, that is; these feelings change a whole lot when gambling's added to the mix.) But despite the everyday constant of fandom anger -- which I like to call "fandemonium" if I'm in a playful mood -- the ire reserved for one LeBron James in 2010 after he made "The Decision" to play for the Miami Heat over the Cleveland Cavaliers is a level that's rarely been seen.
While the reasons for anger were many -- he gave up on his own team, he went somewhere already built to win, the ESPN TV special had a hubris level rarely seen -- one aspect those in the "LeBron's not that bad" corner always use to defend his actions is that he agreed to a smaller salary to play with the Heat. Such was his desire to win, he did something unthinkable in the current state of pro sports: Leave money on the table. Except, well, he really didn't at all.
If the definition of a person's profession was based entirely on where a majority of that person's income comes from, LeBron James would not be a basketball player. He would be a celebrity spokesperson.
As Forbes points out, while James is a bargain in regards to how much the team pays him, he's still the second highest paid player in the NBA when all income is considered. That discrepancy comes from the massive deals he has with corporate sponsors to endorse their products. As an NBA player, LeBron makes "only" $17.6 million a year. As a spokesperson? A whopping $40 million.
His vast portfolio of brands include such corporate heavyweights as Nike, Samsung, State Farm, and sports trading card company Upper Deck. For the most part, the general sentiment around him taking money to shill for these corporations is one of acceptance. If a millionaire wants to use his celebrity to make a few more million saying that Samsung has better smartphones than AT&T, good for him. Adult consumers aren't going to be tricked into buying an inferior product simply because a sports personality tells them to. But where things start to get particularly dicey is when celebrity endorsements enter the realm of food. Which is why James endorsing McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts and other Big Food corporations is a major cause for concern.
We already know that Big Food is spending vast amounts of money tricking children into pestering their parents for their product, but what's underreported is their strategy of paying famous sports personalities to give their products more legitimacy. Possibly, it's the fact that the ads are so ubiquitous -- during the two-minute breaks between plays, on the sides of buses, above the urinals in the men's room, on highway billboards, in between YouTube videos, at the end of the grocery store aisle -- that's led them to be overlooked. But as a new study in the medical journal Pediatrics points out, forgetting about the impact of food endorsements by sports stars is dangerous:
A litany of pro athletes analyzed by the authors put their big names behind 44 different food or beverage brands during 2010, with 79 percent of those food products being "energy-dense and nutrient-poor," and with 93 percent of the drinks receiving all of their calories from added sugar -- including sports drinks, the paper notes.
Peyton Manning is the big case used in the previously-linked NBC piece, noting that his NFL salary gets a $12 million-a-year bump because he lends his face and name to such products as Oreo cookies and Papa John's pizza. (When it comes to the latter, Manning is actually more deeply embedded, owning 21 Papa John's stores in the Denver area himself.) But the main takeaway from the study isn't that we should demonize the specific sports stars who decide to cash in. It's the understanding that the viewers those ads are targeting haven't yet developed skeptical eyes:
Many of those food-and-beverage sales campaigns are aimed at young consumers.
As the great Charles Barkley once noted, he is not a role model. (Of course, he was being paid a ton of money by Nike to say those words.) And yet, millions of kids around the world with posters on their walls and jerseys in their closets treat professional sports players as such. If Peyton Manning is telling kids that they should have themselves a Papa John's pizza for dinner, they're going to listen.
There's also this bit of irony to consider:
The promotion of those meals "by some of the world's most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health," added the authors [of the study], who compared the modern players' food peddling to the cigarette ads of bygone sports stars like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
There's a pretty good chance that in thirty years we'll be looking back at ads featuring Serena Williams saying McDonald's is where she goes after a tough match with the same mix of disgust and astonishment.
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