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Should Nike Drop Big Ben?

Thursday, 22 Apr 2010 | 11:54 AM ET

This much is clear. However long Nike's contract with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is, the allegations against him (even if they won't be prosecuted), will assure us that Nike will never use him in a commercial again.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ronald C. Modra | Sports Imagery | Getty Images
Ben Roethlisberger

So the question becomes why doesn't Nike get rid of him now?

The short answer seems to be that Nike doesn't sever contracts with athletes who haven’t committed a crime or haven't been found to use performance enhancing drugs.

And without Roethlisberger being charged or convicted of sexual assault, he fits the bill of still staying under the Nike athlete roster.

In July 2007, I urged Nike to drop Michael Vick after he was charged in a dogfighting scheme. The next day, Nike suspended his contract without pay. But it wasn’t until after he pleaded guilty, that Nike terminated its contract with him.

Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault just a couple weeks after Nike signed him to a five-year, $45 million deal. Nike scaled back shoe and advertising plans with Bryant until the criminal case was dropped and the civil case was settled. But Nike came back to use Bryant, who is arguably the league’s most popular player today.

Nike officials don’t seem to tolerate any use of performance-enhancing drugs, at least in track and field.

Nike terminated the contract of track coach Trevor Graham and suspended the contract of another one of his runners Justin Gatlin after Graham’s clients, including Gatlin, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Nike also terminated the contract of sprinter Kelli White when she admitted to using steroids.

Twice they have chosen not to renew deals of athletes who were suspected to have used performance enhancing drugs.

In 2005, Nike decided not to renew the contracts of both Jason Giambi and Marion Jones. At the time, Jones had told a grand jury that she didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs. Giambi, on the other hand, admitted to using them to the grand jury, but did not admit it to the public until a few weeks before his Nike contract was set to expire anyway.

Jones admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and lying to the government in October 2007 and served a six-month jail sentence.

But there is an athlete who was caught using performance-enhancing drugs and kept his contract with Nike. That would Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman who tested positive for a steroid in 2006, but still remained under contract and appeared in a Nike commercial in 2007.

Precedent shows that Nike will just let its contract with Roethlisberger expire without mentioning it. But is that the right call? Should Nike make a statement by announcing that it is severing the contract, or suspending him without pay, even if it legally has to pay Roethlisberger because the company might not have "just cause."

At the end of the day, Nike officials know that with Roethlisberger, just like they knew with Michael Vick, that he'll never be their star again. So why continue to be associated with him even if not everything in the 572-page report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is true?

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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