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Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso, all ESPN personalities, had undisclosed arrangements with Nike (Credit: ESPN)

The New York Times reported that three ESPN personalities have endorsement contracts with Nike — endorsement contracts that ESPN didn’t even know about. Perhaps needless to add, ESPN viewers were also kept in the dark about these contracts.

iMediaEthics reported in January when Erin Andrews’ deal with Reebok was brought to the forefront by The OregonianThe Oregonian wondered if it was a conflict of interest for Andrews to be announced as endorsing Reebok just two weeks after she criticized Nike on air.

According to the Times, “Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso have deals with Nike that Corso described as a joint arrangement that largely involves speaking engagements for the athletic shoe and apparel company.”

Fowler hosts “GameDay, Herbstreit is an “ESPN college football studio analyst,” and Corso is an “analyst” for College GameDay.

Following the Times’ inquiry, Fowler reportedly is “‘ending his minor association’ with Nike ‘ to avoid any potential perception issues,” the Times reported.

EPSN’s Josh Krulewitz further commented

“By any objective measure, Chris, Kirk and Lee’s on-air work is unassailable. Their content has not been compromised by this relationship.”

Notably, none of the arrangements that the trio had with Nike were “announced or disclosed to viewers” and Krulewitz commented that “we were unaware of these deals.”

Nike spokesperson Derek Kent “confirmed” with the Times that the three ESPN employees had arrangements with the company.

“While we don’t disclose the specific nature of our contracts, they have appeared as M.C.’s at various Nike events in the past.”

However, Corso somewhat described the endorsement deal to the New York Times.  “We don’t do very much and they’re unbelievable to us. We wear their product, which is part of it,” he is quoted as saying.

Further, Corso said that he, Fowler and Herbstreit didn’t have to disclose their relationship to Nike:  “I might have Nike shoes on, but it’s got nothing to do with ‘College GameDay.’ ”

The Prindle Institute for Ethics’ director, Bob Steele, weighed in on the issue.  He stated to the New York Times:

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“It’s not just what’s said or written but what stories are covered and the frame for the story.  It’s the questions that are asked and not asked in an interview, and who gets interviewed.

“You do have to wonder why a sports journalist, or any journalist, would wander in this kind of ethical minefield without recognizing the consequences.”

ESPN reportedly handles endorsement arrangements on a “case by case basis.”

SportsGrid weighed in on the endorsement issues.

“ESPN doesn’t seem to be too concerned with what might come from its TV personalities having endorsement deals; the world’s biggest sports network said it allowed employees to sign endorsements on a case-by-case basis.

“That inconsistency alone seems like it could be a recipe for conflict.

“It’s important to note that plenty of sports media members have endorsement deals (Chris Berman, Howie Long and Charles Barkley, to name a few). Many of them have been endorsing products since they were athletes or coaches.

“But the difference here is that Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso did not disclose their arrangement with Nike, while guys like Barkley and Long appear in TV commercials, making their connection visible to the public.”

Read the New York Times’ full report here.

iMediaEthics is writing to ESPN’s Krulewitz for comment and will update with any response.

UPDATE: 2/22/2011  8:54 PM EST:  ESPN’s Josh Krulewitz responded to iMediaEthics’ e-mail inquiry. iMediaEthics asked the following:

  1. Fowler ended “his minor assocation” with Nike.  Will Herbstreit and Corso follow suit?
  2. If ESPN handles endorsement deals on a case-by-case basis, what are some of the factors in weighing the appropriateness of endorsement deals?
  3. What are ESPN’s policies on disclosure of endorsement deals/arrangements?
  4. Given that Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso’s deals were undisclosed to ESPN, will any of the three be penalized in any way?”

Krulewitz responded that “we don’t have much more new to report at this time” and sent ESPN’s statement on this story:

“By any objective measure, Chris, Kirk and Lee’s on-air work is unassailable. Their content has not been compromised by this relationship.  In discussion with Chris, he and ESPN both agreed that ending his minor association is best to avoid any potential perception issues. With Kirk and Lee, we considered how among players and coaches who turn analyst, it’s common for them to have endorsement deals beyond playing/coaching careers. We will review these and related issues further to assess how best to address them.”

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