Why did Nike drop Maria Sharapova so quickly?

Nike dropped its eight-year contract with tennis star Maria Sharapova after she admitted to taking a performance-enhancing drug.

Aaron Favila/AP/File
On Jan. 26, Maria Sharapova of Russia plays a backhand return to Serena Williams at the Australian Open tennis championships. Three of Maria Sharapova's major sponsors are cutting ties after she acknowledged failing a doping test at the Australian Open: Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche.

Several companies dropped their sponsorships with the speed of a strong back-hand after one of the world's most successful female athletes Maria Sharapova announced she failed a drug test.

On Monday, the tennis star acknowledged she was taking a performance-enhancing drug during a Jan. 26 drug test at the Australian Open, Sports Illustrated reported. Ms. Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, which was added to the banned substances list on January 1. Sharapova claims that she has been prescribed the drug by her doctor since 2006.

Many of those awaiting the announcement had assumed she would announce her retirement after an injury forced her to withdraw from a recent competition in Palm Springs. 

"I know many of you thought I would be retiring today, but if I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown LA hotel with this ugly carpet," she said in a press conference, looking down at the floor

Nike was quick to cut ties with the star, who the sportswear company has sponsored since she was 11 years old, perhaps remembering the public backlash that has accompanied its earlier attempts to stay loyal to controversial athletes who dabbled in performance-enhancing drugs. 

“We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova,” Nike said in a statement, according to Forbes. “We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

Companies have learned to respond more nimbly to scandal than they did even five years ago because of the quickening media climate, the BBC reported.

Nike, in particular, has become "proactive" about severing ties with athletes who appear likely to hurt its image after scandals impacted the company adversely. It has been "burned by a lot of athletes over the years, and growing impatient with putting so much investment behind athletes that potentially comes back to bite them in the court of public opinion," Paul Swangaurd, from the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, told the BBC. 

The company has shifted its policy significantly from the days of standing with Lance Armstrong while doping allegations swirled, The Christian Science Monitor wrote:

Despite a mountain of evidence against Armstrong, Nike stood by its endorsee until the bitter end. When Nike finally did sever ties with Armstrong, the company issued a muted statement that “it does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner” and it believes “in the integrity of competition.”

Sharapova's current, eight-year contract with Nike began in 2010 and was worth an estimated $70 million, the BBC reported.

"I've made a huge mistake," she said in a press conference. "I know that I face consequences."

Sharapova said her family doctor began prescribing the medication a decade ago, and although she received an e-mail from the ITF on Dec. 22 describing its new prohibition, she did not click through to the link to read the updated list of banned substances.

"It's very important for you to understand that for the past 10 years this medicine was not on WADA's banned list, and I had been taking the medication legally," she said in a press conference. 

The social media response was mixed, although most were glad she had acted quickly after receiving the letter about the failed drug test.

The ITF has provisionally suspended Sharapova until March 12, although her injury would likely prevent her from competing for some time anyway.

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