Sharapova suspension leaves her sponsors in a quandary

The International Tennis Federation announced the athlete’s punishment for unintentionally doping. Some companies lent support; others kept their distance.

For Maria Sharapova, hopes of playing in Rio—or in any professional capacity—hang in the balance.

On Wednesday, the International Tennis Federation announced that it was suspending Sharapova for two years for taking the performance-enhancing drug meldonium.

The New York Times explained:

After a hearing May 18 and 19, a three-member tribunal appointed by the I.T.F. ruled that while Sharapova’s doping violation was not intentional, “she does bear sole responsibility for the contravention, and very significant fault, in failing to take any steps to check whether the continued use of this medicine was permissible.”

Sharapova faced a suspension of up to four years if the tribunal decided her doping violation was intentional. Because of her prompt admission of her violation, the I.T.F. said, the suspension will be backdated to begin on Jan. 26, and she will be eligible to return at midnight on Jan. 25, 2018.

Sharapova said she will appeal the decision, fighting back with a statement she shared on Facebook and Twitter:

The statement reads, in part:

Today with their decision of a two year suspension, the ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional. The tribunal found that I did not seek treatment from my doctor for the purpose of obtaining a performance enhancing substance. The ITF spent tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to prove I intentionally violated the anti-doping rules and the tribunal concluded I did not. You need to know that the ITF asked the tribunal to suspend me for four years—the required suspension for an intentional violation—and the tribunal rejected the ITF’s position.

While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension. The tribunal, whose members were selected by the ITF, agreed that I did not do anything intentionally wrong, yet they seek to keep me from playing tennis for two years. I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

I have missed playing tennis and I have missed my amazing fans, who are the best and most loyal fans in the world. I have read your letters. I have read your social media posts and your love and support has gotten me through these tough days. I intend to stand for what I believe is right and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible.

Though criticism of the athlete for taking the drug has continued, many of Sharapova’s fans have voiced support through the hashtag #IStandWithMaria. Her sponsors, however, are divided.

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On Wednesday, Nike lifted the suspension it had placed on its relationship with Sharapova in March and gave reporters the following statement:

Maria has always made her position clear, has apologized for her mistake and is now appealing the length of the ban. We hope to see Maria back on court and will continue to partner with her.

Evian also announced it would stick with the athlete:

The ITF tribunal concluded that Maria Sharapova’s contravention was not intentional. Following this announcement, Evian has decided to maintain its long-lasting relationship with the champion.

Tennis racket manufacturer Head said it, too, would “continue to stand” by the athlete. The company’s chairman and chief executive, Johan Eliasch, issued the following statement:

In the statement, Eliasch said the ITF made its decision “based upon a flawed process.” He continued:

Without necessary and extensive clinical testing that highlights either Meldonium’s performance enhancing benefits or evidence of it being detrimental to athletes, it is evident that WADA banned Meldonium based upon the amount of athletes using Meldonium rather than any scientific evidence. WADA have a responsibility to make decisions based upon scientific inquiry rather than prevalence of use and most importantly must fulfill their own rules when making such decisions.

We believe, based on the facts and circumstances provided to us, that this is a flawed decision. HEAD will continue to stand by Miss Sharapova.

Head has been vocal in its support of Sharapova since the athlete admitted to taking Mildronate (the active ingredient of which is meldonium):

However, not all sponsors decided to “stand with Maria.”

Tag Heuer’s chief executive, Jean-Claude Biver, told Business Insider the company wouldn’t sign another contract with Sharapova in the near future:

We now have some time and as she is suspended for two years we are not in a hurry anymore to sign a new contract today or this month. We will see later what we are going to do.

Porche’s relationship with Sharapova is still suspended, and the company is waiting to see the outcome of the appeal. It gave the following statement to Business Insider:

We have taken note of the recent International Tennis Federation (ITF) ruling in the case of Maria Sharapova and are especially aware that it was decided that she was not accused of intentionally violating the World Anti-Doping-Code. As Maria will appeal the decision, we will continue to keep all activities with her on hold until the final judgement has been reached.

If Sharapova’s appeal is denied, two years off the court wouldn’t necessarily end the athlete’s career. The New York Times reported:

A four-year suspension could have been career ending, but if her ban is upheld, Sharapova, who has missed long periods on the tour because of injuries and has seen her ranking fall to No. 26, would be 30 when she returned to a sport in which Williams and Roger Federer remain top players in their mid-30s.

Though the suspension isn’t career ending, Forbes reported that it “has massive financial implications for Sharapova”:

The suspension, which is backdated to January, has massive financial implications for Sharapova, who was the world’s highest-paid female athlete for 11 straight years before Serena Williams took the crown this year. She has earned $285 million during her career and averaged $25 million in earnings from prize money, appearances and endorsements over the past seven years. The suspension could cost Sharapova $50 million in lost earnings over the next few years, on top of her climbing legal bills. …

Sharapova earned $20 million from endorsements by our count over the last 12 months versus $23 million in the prior year, but her earnings are going to plummet over the next 12 months.

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