Tattoos on athletes
Issue: Do leagues have power to ban skin ads?
By Jennifer Cox
Money-grubbing has long been a given in professional sports. Nobody’s surprised anymore when an A-list jock shows more interest in grabbing endorsement deals than rebounds or touchdowns.
But a new controversy that erupted in recent weeks has people wondering how far pro athletes will go in the name of free enterprise—and how far advertisers will go to encourage them.
At the center of the furor is a plan to have National Basketball Association players use their bodies as billboards by getting tattooed with advertisers’ logos.
If carried out, the scheme will force the league once again to redraw the line between personal freedom and professional conduct.
Dakkan Abbe, president of New York City-based Fifty Rubies Marketing, says he hit on the concept while watching an NBA game on television.
It occurred to him that it would be a simple way for sponsors to get national TV exposure for much less than it costs to buy commercial time.
After hastily working out the details, Abbe approached the Portland Trail Blazers’ Rasheed Wallace and asked the player if he would be interested in wearing a temporary tattoo depicting the logo of an unidentified candy company.
Unfortunately, says Abbe, Wallace’s agent leaked news of the offer to the press. As stories appeared in The New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News, Wallace declined the deal.
Other players, reluctant to step into the media spotlight, are so far hanging back, though Abbe says a number have approached him on the quiet, including athletes from other sports.
"It’s been very difficult with all the news about it," says Abbe. "Now we need to find a player that will do it."
Complicating his problem is the stance the NBA has taken after learning of the deal.
An NBA spokesperson told Media Life that the league would view such an arrangement as a violation of its collective bargaining agreement with the players.
Not surprisingly, Abbe thinks otherwise.
"The NBA is defining tattoos as part of the players’ uniforms, but a player’s skin is not part of his uniform," he says, calling it a personal rights issue.
"I find it offensive that the league would not allow something on someone’s skin."
Abbe notes that many players have permanent tattoos on their bodies, which the league does not regulate.
But many disagree with Abbe and say the NBA could very easily prohibit the sponsored tattoos.
"I would tend to agree with the NBA that this breaks their contracts," says Paul Benjou, director of Global Networks Inc. "They are taking monetary advantage of the situation."
John Mansell, senior analyst at Paul Kagan & Associates, concurs.
"I think ultimately the issue will be resolved and the league will have the say in whether they allow it or not," he says.
Meanwhile, the players' association, which protects the basketball players’ interests, has not commented on the issue.
"The players' association doesn’t want to make a statement about what’s technically a hypothetical situation," says Abbe.
He won’t disclose the possible sponsors or players currently involved in negotiations. He also won’t discuss the price involved in renting space on an NBA player’s skin for two weeks, the duration the temporary tattoos last for.
All Abbe will reveal is that the players he is targeting regularly appear on national broadcasts on Saturdays on NBC, ensuring his clients are guaranteed TV time.
But both Benjou and Mansell say the entire issue may be moot if advertisers don’t go for the idea of endorsement tattoos.
"The whole tattoo issue is a phase, a fad," says Benjou.
"The practical matter," says Mansell, "is that I’m not sure there are a lot of advertisers that want to be on the sweaty arm of an NBA player."
April 2, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-Jennifer Cox is a staff writer for Media Life.