The sportswear giant Nike confirmed on Thursday that it had ended its sponsorship of Antonio Brown in the wake of a lawsuit accusing the New England Patriots wide receiver of rape.
“Antonio Brown is not a Nike athlete,” said Sandra Carreon-John, a Nike spokeswoman. She did not respond to questions about what prompted the termination.
Through his lawyer, Brown has denied the allegation. The N.F.L. is investigating and has opted not to suspend Brown while it does.
Brown spoke to reporters after practice on Thursday, in his first public comments since the lawsuit was filed. “I’m just here to focus on ball and look forward to get out there in the home stadium with the team,” Brown said.
Nike is the second sponsor Brown has lost following the lawsuit. The helmet manufacturer Xenith ended its contract with Brown last week, only days after signing it.
Nike’s decision comes as a surprise, as the company has in the past continued to sponsor athletes involved in litigation and negative publicity while other brands dropped their support. The Boston Globe first reported news of Nike’s decision to drop Brown.
Nike continued sponsoring Kobe Bryant in 2003 after he was arrested and charged with sexual assault just weeks after the company had signed him to a reported $40 million contract. A number of Bryant’s other blue chip sponsors, like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, allowed their contracts with him to expire, but Nike has maintained its contractual relationship with him ever since. The assault charges were eventually dropped and Bryant settled a lawsuit with his accuser.
Sales of American football products make up a relatively small portion of Nike’s bottom line, and the company has been quicker to dissociate itself from pro football players accused of wrongdoing. In 2014, Nike ended its sponsorship of Ray Rice after TMZ published video of him striking his fiancée in an elevator, as well as its sponsorship of Adrian Peterson after he was charged with child abuse.
But Nike chose to continue its lifetime contract with Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo, reportedly worth $1 billion, after he was accused of rape in a lawsuit last year.
“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation,” the company said in a statement at the time, as it continued to sell items from Ronaldo’s CR7 collection. Ronaldo has denied the accusation, and the lawsuit is proceeding. Prosecutors in Las Vegas have declined to file charges.
The company repeated much the same language in June (“We are very concerned by the recent allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation,”) when it released a statement standing by the Brazilian soccer star Neymar, who was accused of raping a woman in Paris, later reported to Brazilian police. The case was dismissed in August, and the woman has since been charged with fraud and extortion.
“We don’t get into specifics of sports marketing relationships,” Mitch Germann, a Nike spokesman, responded when asked how the decision was made to end Brown’s contract but not Bryant’s or Ronaldo’s.
The athletic company also has stood by athletes accused of less-serious wrongdoings that still became public relations nightmares.
Nike continued its deal with Tiger Woods even after his serial infidelity exploded into public view in 2009 and lost him a number of sponsors. The company continued sponsoring Lance Armstrong as evidence mounted that he had used performance enhancing drugs, only dropping his contract in 2012 after he resigned as the chairman of his Lance Armstrong Foundation.