When the Kobe Bryant sex scandal first hit the headlines, one of the first things that NBA insiders began discussing was its impact on his multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts. But the discussions had a twist. While some worried that a sexual-assault rap might hurt him, others decided that this might actually boost his stock "on the street," in the urban marketplace of hip-hop, macho credibility. Clearly, the NBA is a highly tolerant environment, when it comes to the personal lives of its superstars.
But what if a hoops phenom was a born-again Christian, one who saw the court as a platform for evangelism and, oh my God, even the advocacy of conservative moral beliefs? How would this affect sneaker sales? Will this hurt the NBA brand name? What's next? An "I love this game" NBA ad featuring Franklin Graham?
This was the issue raised in a feature over at ESPN.com focusing on this year's high-school verson of LeBron (King) James. Dwight Howard is a 6-10 power forward and everyone agrees that this young man is a star on the rise. But what about those hymns he sings? What about that 10 Commandments poster in his room? Is the NBA ready for a stud who says things like: "I want to be able to speak to non-Christians so that I can get them saved or change their lives around."
This is not a new issue. There have been stories in the past about born-again tensions in major-league baseball locker rooms. People have asked if a linebacker can be as tough as he needs to be when he is involved in Promise Keeper rallies on Saturday with some of the players that he needs to crush on Sunday. But it is Howard's openness about his evangelistic goals that has some people freaking out. Can the NBA tolerate this kind of intolerance? The ESPN.com feature notes:
"This is the first time an athlete will be able to overcome what (former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson) couldn't do," said Sonny Vaccaro, the Reebok executive. . . . "David was a leader in the crusade of being religious and being a great athlete, but Dwight's plan could work because we're in an era of niche marketing. He's taking a stand saying, 'I'm going to do this and some company is going to buy into it,' and that fact is that these companies have millions and billions of dollars to brand Dwight as their hero.
"If he's as good as I think he will be, he'll be the perfect role model for this segment of the population."
To state it crudely, does the NBA need to consider the impact of those box-office numbers for The Passion of the Christ? Can professional sports afford to be "Left Behind" in this age of niche marketing?
Maybe that would work. But maybe, notes ESPN reporter Darren Rovell, it would not. Everyone knows that there are believers out on the court. But the jury is still out on whether that is good for marketing.
About 50 percent of the league's players attend at least one service during the season and seemingly every team has a player who considers himself a devout Christian, said former ABA and NBA guard Claude Terry, executive vice president of the Pro Basketball Fellowship, which oversees the NBA teams' chaplains.
"I would hope that Dwight's beliefs wouldn't hurt his chances to market products," Terry said. "I would think that marketers would want to embrace someone with such values. At the same time, I can understand that we live in an age where people are supposed to be tolerant of the choices others make and it could be interpreted that he is imposing his beliefs on them."