Matthew Miller
Oct 12, 2017

'You can't guarantee a win', but brain damage is a near certainty

OPINION: Is an association with boxing in Nike's best interest?

In the Nike ad above, Hong Kong professional boxer Rex Tso gets knocked down, but he gets up again. Interspersed with shots of other athletes persevering through various mildly painful setbacks, we watch Tso struggle to stay conscious, stagger to his feet and literally shake off the effects of a blow that sent him onto his back. This is clearly someone's idea of a heroic storyline. But I submit that it's more of a horror story.  

The ad, part of a full campaign through Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai, was directed by no less than Michael Mann. I'm not about to take issue with the craft of the guy who made Last of the Mohicans and Heat. But I will question the wisdom of Nike—or any brand at all—choosing to associate itself with a sport that's been proven to cause brain damage. And by extension that means I'm questioning the wisdom of W+K in advising its BFF client. 

Evidence about the cumulative harm wrought by repeated head trauma is mounting. And it's devastating. Research in recent years has made it clear that repeated blows result in cognitive, emotional and behavioural impairments in a significant number of people who experience them.

Much of the evidence backing the above statement comes from a Boston University research program that studies the brains of deceased former players of American football. These studies have revealed pervasive brain damage that is the hallmark of a degenerative disease called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and progressive dementia, according to the researchers.

I am a lifelong fan of the game I simply call "football". However, in light of the above and some highly public cases of players whose entire personalities changed as their lives spiraled downward after retirement, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the game. Can anyone in good conscience support, or even enjoy, a sport that is convincingly linked to such horrible outcomes?

Nike is heavily involved in the NFL (National Football League), including being its official uniform supplier. So I believe it will have to confront this same question sooner or later.

But back to boxing. If the effects of American football are hard to stomach, it's even harder to make any kind of case for supporting or glorifying a sport where the actual objective is to inflict as much trauma as possible on another person—and specifically their head—in order to render them unconscious. MMA fighting surely falls into this category, as well. CTE, by the way, was originally called "dementia pugilistica", according to the BU researchers, because it was first recognized among boxers (pugilists) in the 1920s.

True, many sports carry the risk of horrific bodily injury. But only a handful carry such a high likelihood of lifelong mental disability, leading in some cases to premature and violent death. If people want to risk their own grey matter by participating in boxing or MMA or American football, they're free to do so, of course. But I do believe fans need to think about what they're supporting.

And so do brands. Even if you solely consider the bottom line, the association is not smart strategy. Public opinion will turn increasingly against these sports over time, and being on the wrong side of that shift will surely impact sales and brand equity.

Ultimately, however, it's a moral question. Brand money perpetuates these sports and creates the financial incentives that draw athletes into them, many times from a very young age. Are nihilism and misanthropy among your brand values?

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