In what may be a first in the world of sports, a high-profile athlete has lost a major endorsement deal after expressing anti-gay rhetoric.
Nike has officially cut ties with boxer Manny Pacquiao, after the welterweight said gay couples "are worse than animals" in a TV interview in his native Philippines. “Do you see animals mating with the same sex? Animals are better because they can distinguish male from female. If men mate with men and women mate with women they are worse than animals,” he said. Although Pacquiao later apologized for his remarks and claimed he was not "condemning anyone," it appears that the damage to his reputation was already done.
"We find Manny Pacquiao's comment abhorrent. Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community," a Nike spokesperson told MSNBC in a statement on Wednesday. "We no longer have a relationship with Manny Pacquiao."
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The writing may have been on the wall earlier on Wednesday, when the gossip website TMZ reported that Pacquiao-related merchandise had been scrubbed from the Nike website. This also leaves the fate of the highly anticipated Nike Manny Pacquaio Air Trainer 1.3 Max, a sneaker which featured the colors of the Philippines flag, up in the air. It was due to launch on May 18.
The 37-year-old had been linked to the Nike brand for a decade, and they had been involved in promotions for his upcoming April 9 fight (rumored to be his last) against welterweight Timothy Bradley. Top Rank Boxing, Pacquaio's promoter, has said the fight will go on, but also acknowledged on their website Wednesday that his statement about same-sex relationships "was immediately, and understandably, taken as a grotesquely misguided and misinformed view of humanity."
"This was not the Pacquiao everybody knew. This was not the all-inclusive, time-for-everybody Pacquiao who has grown into an international icon in just his 37 years on this planet. In the blink of an eye, he went from beloved to buffoon," they added. "It made no sense. Pacquiao isn’t stupid. What he said, and that he said it, was."
Pacquiao is not just a boxer, he's a politician. He currently holds a congressional seat in the Philippines, although he is frequently absent, and is in the midst of a campaign for the Senate. Pacquiao has long been a vocal advocate for religious and cultural conservatism, and perhaps his most infamous act as a legislator was his unsuccessful attempt to stop passage of a bill that made contraception more accessible to the poor.
The swift backlash against Pacquiao's homophobic remarks recalls what OutSports manager editor Cyd Zeigler calls "the tipping point" in the LGBT sports movement — former NBA star Tim Hardaway's anti-gay rant in 2007.
When reports surfaced that former NBA player John Amaechi has come out as gay, Hardaway gave a highly offensive radio interview in which he boasted about being homophobic and argued that LGBT people "shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." The NBA and CBA ended their relationships with the former Miami Heat star, whose name became synonymous for a time with anti-gay hate speech.
That was "the closest thing that we’ve had to this," Zeigler told MSNBC on Wednesday. According to Zeigler, five years ago Nike wasn't sure how to navigate the changing social climate and attitudes regarding same-sex couples. Now, they have fully embraced the gay rights movement.
The company has shown support for marriage equality, created a line of apparel (#BeTrue) targeted at LGBT consumers, and inked deals with openly gay athletes like Jason Collins and Brittney Griner.
"This was another step in Nike’s march toward equality, you cannot say the things that Pacquiao said," Zeigler told MSNBC. "Comparing my husband and me to animals or saying we’re worse than animals — that doesn’t work for Nike and it doesn’t work for any major corporation."
Still, Zeigler points out that Pacquiao had spoken out against same-sex marriage in less heated rhetoric two years ago. He believes that for there to be a real evolution in the way sports figures treat and talk about people in the LGBT community, more professional athletes must come out publicly.
"Things change when people come out," he said.
Meanwhile, Pacquiao's legendary rival, boxer Floyd Mayweather — who has generated a fair share of controversy in his own right — also knocked his remarks on Wednesday. He told TMZ: "We should let people live their lives the way they want to live their lives. To each his own."