How brands and teams approach off-the-field allegations
Content warning: The following contains discussion of sexual violence.
The GIST: As Manchester United fans continue to protest the potential return of forward Mason Greenwood, the club is delaying its decision on his future until it can talk to its women’s team and sponsors. Brands and teams have historically taken a variety of approaches to off-the-field allegations, but is cutting ties finally the new normal?
The context: Premier League footballer Mason Greenwood was arrested in January 2022 after his then-girlfriend released audio of an alleged sexual assault. Last October, he was charged with attempted rape, controlling and coercive behavior, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
- Greenwood denied the charges but hasn’t played for the club since the audio came to light. The charges were dropped this February and now the club — which has a contract with Greenwood through 2025 — must determine how to proceed.
- Manchester United will reportedly consult members of the women’s team — some of whom are currently competing in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup (WWC) — and request opinions from its biggest sponsors and stakeholders, including fans. A rare W for teams in these situations.
Past league and team reactions: In February 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was accused of hitting his then-fiancee in an elevator. Aggravated assault charges were brought against Rice soon after, but the NFL and the Ravens only took strong actions after TMZ released footage of the assault months later.
- In March 2021, former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was accused of sexual assault and sexual misconduct by multiple women. Despite the allegations, the Cleveland Browns traded for Watson in the middle of the investigation and the NFL ultimately only suspended Watson for 11 games and issued a measly $5M fine. Disappointing.
- More recently, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer was accused of sexual abuse and although the case fell apart legally, MLB’s independent investigation resulted in the longest suspension in league history and Bauer being dropped by the Dodgers.
Brands cutting ties: Nike terminated its contract with Rice after the video leaked, while Nike and Beats by Dre ended their deals with Watson a month after the allegations came out. In Greenwood’s case, Nike dropped him shortly after his arrest. Boy, bye.
The future: There seems to be a trend toward harder punishments for athletes facing off-the-field accusations and Manchester United has an opportunity to set a strong precedent. By involving crucial stakeholders, the club is already making a smart business decision, but dropping Greenwood would show where the team really stands.