Retired NBA players David Robinson and Shane Battier, and sports broadcaster Seth Davis, are the faces of a new Dove Men+Care March Madness marketing campaign aimed at thanking college basketball fans for their devotion. For the campaign, Davis interviewed Robinson, Battier, and three current NBA players who played in the NCAA tournament in college (Trey Burke, Doug McDermott and Jameer Nelson), to come up with a 13-sentence “Real Strength Manifesto” that addresses fans and thanks them for their energy and passion.
But there’s some unlucky irony to the timing of the campaign: an ongoing FBI corruption probe has ensnared more than 20 top programs and threatens the NCAA’s notion of “amateurism” and the future of the sport.
Is there a risk that the stain of the scandal will turn off some fans this year?
“I had that concern, as all this news was breaking,” says Davis. “But if anything, I think people are more excited for the games. The games are always right. Whatever happens inside that box is pure. During the tournament, you know that these are college kids, they’re not professionals and they’re not being paid like professionals. The vast vast majority of them know they will not have a playing career after college. When they win a game in the tournament, the elation is pure. And when they lose, and a player collapses on the floor in absolute tears, that is pure.”
David Robinson has a different take. “Absolutely,” he says when asked if the scandal might cast a pall over the tournament this year. “People don’t like scandal, they don’t like the FBI getting involved in their favorite sport, that’s not a lot of fun.” (Watch the above video for the full interview.)
Robinson is a member of the Commission on College Basketball, assembled in October after the FBI arrested 10 men in connection with a scheme to pay top high school prospects to commit to play at certain universities. NBA alum Grant Hill is also on the commission; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the chair.
“We’re an independent commission, so we’re not working for the NCAA,” Robinson says, “we’re just collecting information, trying to figure out, what are some of the best things we can do to clean things up. You have student athletes, and we want the ‘student’ part to be just as important as the ‘athlete’ part.”
The bribery scandal has brought back to the fore the longtime debate over whether to compensate student athletes (beyond the free tuition many receive). “That’s something that’s been discussed, and we’ve discussed it,” Robinson says. “But I think the thing is understanding [that] maybe the dialogue needs to change a little bit. The opportunity of being in college is the best time of our lives, it’s still an amazing opportunity… So how do we change that dialogue? The NCAA shouldn’t be the enemy of the athlete. Sometimes you watch the punishments, you watch all these things going on, and I think students sometimes feel a little bit like they’re at odds with the NCAA. So we’re tying to figure out a way that it can be more equitable on all sides.”
Indeed, even LeBron James, who never played in college, jumped into the debate when he said last month, “The NCAA is corrupt.”
Of course, the NCAA is convinced that paying college athletes would invalidate the idea that they are amateurs; it would change the entire image of college athletes.
The NCAA isn’t the only entity concerned with image. March Madness sponsor Coca-Cola, asked for a comment about the ongoing corruption probe, says, “Anything that detracts from the mission and ideals of the NCAA is of concern to us.”
And Adidas has wrestled with its role in the scandal: two marketing executives for the company are accused of facilitating payment to a high school prospect to get him to commit to the University of Louisville, an Adidas-sponsored school. Back in November, Adidas US CEO Mark King told Yahoo Finance the company was conducting its own investigation and that, “We want to find out where our processes broke down.”
Now, when asked about the probe again, King tells Yahoo Finance, “I think people are focused on the tournament, and the brilliance and excitement of March Madness, and all that college basketball brings that’s really good. For us, we’ve done our investigation, we’re cooperating, we feel good that we’ve done all the right things, and we’re moving forward.”
The Dove Men+Care manifesto to fans includes lines like, “We know how much you care because we can see it… We always feel how much you care.”
This year, will they care as much as in the past?
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.