So I’m in a state of shock right now. I’ve been kicking about the possibility of sponsoring a few athletes, and I’ve come to learn about the realities of sponsored professional sporting pursuits. I am pretty cynical in general and I fully believe that Lance and everyone else in top cycling is a doper, and that professional sports involve tons of cheating which the athletes justify by figuring that everybody knows that they do it so it’s fine. I think that’s bunk, but that’s not the focus of this article so we’ll go into that some other time. I know full well that performance enhanced cheaters are common, but what I didn’t know is that sponsorship cheaters are common as well.

If you’ve been reading for a while you have read all the articles I posted on gear review ethics and all that stuff. I have been pretty concerned over keeping everything I do above board since this is kind of a new industry and best practices aren’t well established yet. It seems that people pretty much assume that gear reviewers can be bought and that paid reviews are by nature biased. I don’t agree with that, as I think it’s up to the reviewer to be honest, but one thing that seems to be universal is that readers want things to be disclosed. If I get something for free for review, I’m bound by law to disclose that, and it’s good practice anyway. People don’t seem as concerned about these issues when it comes to print media and paid writers and people selected to represent certain brands on blogs and web sites, but deciphering that disparity is outside of my scope right now, mostly because I’m really pissed off about what I just discovered about sponsorships.

We all know that when an athlete is sponsored by a company, they are pretty much obligated to say good things about the products and talk them up whether they really like the stuff or not. Okay, so saying you like something when you actually don’t like it is a lie no matter whether you get paid to do it or not. This is a lie that people seem to be okay with, but that’s neither here nor there right now, because what I want to address is the fact that when an athlete says they use a product or race on a particular bike or ski or wear a particular brand of clothing because they are sponsored by the company, until now I believed that they were actually wearing it or using it. I believe that they are going that fast in the races on the gear supplied to them by their sponsors. I am naive enough to think that what we see is what we get when it comes to sponsorships, I mean, if the athlete is being paid to use the stuff, they’re using the stuff. Right?

Oh my god. Wrong. Totally wrong. Apparently it’s completely normal to paint your bike like it’s made by your sponsor even if it’s not, swap logos on jackets, put different top sheets on skis, paint your ski boots to look like your sponsor’s boots, etc. etc. so that you can use what you ACTUALLY like while all the while pretending that it’s that thing that you’re paid to say you like. Someone please explain to me how this is not just flat out LYING? Someone please explain to me how this is not 100% unethical?

The people who have attempted to explain it have pretty much just provided a stream of justifications, including “if you want to be the best, you do what you have to do” and “if you don’t act loyal to your sponsor, bye bye free stuff” and similar. Those aren’t reasons it’s not lying, those are attempted justifications for lying. Justifications don’t make it ethical, because it’s not. Lying because if you don’t lie, you won’t get free stuff anymore is not any more acceptable than lying for any other reason. Actually at the moment it seems worse than some other reasons for lying, because the athlete is lying for no other reason than superficial personal gain in the form of material goods. What is more shallow than that?

To me, this issue is black and white, because I don’t think there is any justification for lying. The average athlete looks at pros and in many cases wants to be like them, which includes using what they use and believing them when they say that their gear has gotten them to the top of their sport. Athletes who lie about their gear are deceiving the people who support and look up to them and admire them. They’re pretty much playing their fans for utter fools. Until now, I was one of the fools who, though I’ve no particular admiration for any specific athlete, believed that the gear we see on the pros is what they’re really using. Now I know that I was wrong and that we, the public, can’t believe one single thing we see, hear, or read from a professional athlete.

I’d like to hear from the sponsors themselves. Do they notice that their athletes aren’t using their stuff? How can they not notice? They must not mind, because if the athlete is winning, they are doing it on gear that at least is branded like their gear and then the sponsor gets good press and success in promoting their stuff even though the athlete isn’t actually using it. It only benefits the sponsor to look the other way when they notice that their athlete just won a World Cup on some other brand’s boots that are painted to look like their boots. They’d never bother revealing that deception if it benefits them, I’m pretty sure. How much lying are the sponsors doing? Are they playing us for fools as well?

I can only assume that yes, they are.

Maybe I should feel like a dope for being so concerned about ethical behavior. Evidently a whole bunch of people use the “free stuff” mantra to justify doing and saying almost anything. Surely many people would like to sweep the whole thing under the rug so that the gravy train of free gear, sponsorships, fame, and glory can continue, but I don’t think that any of us should tolerate it any longer. The outdoor industry is relatively new, and unless we want to see it go the way of politics and big business and turn into an utterly hypocritical joke of an industry, we’d better clean it up, and that goes for athletes, sponsors, bloggers, print media, and consumers alike.