Ja Morant still had his endorsement deals Monday. While his latest gun video on social media is costing him plenty in public relations currency, he hasn't lost any money.
Any, or all, of that could change any day. Once again, Morant is in limbo — awaiting the outcome of yet another NBA investigation into what could end up becoming a cataclysmic off-court decision.
“This is going to be a hot question,” Syracuse professor of sport management Rick Burton said Monday. “I don’t think they can hit pause on this. I think that there will be too much demand for, ‘What are you going to do?’”
The NBA already suspended the two-time All-Star guard eight games in March for livestreaming himself holding an apparent handgun in Colorado. That cost him about $669,000 in salary.
How Morant’s sponsors react to him being caught on social media apparently holding a weapon for the second time in less than three months is another issue.
Morant has endorsement deals with Nike and the sports drink Powerade, which is owned by Coca-Cola. Endorsement deals traditionally include confidentiality and morals clauses.
Representatives of Nike, which started selling Morant’s Ja 1 shoes on April 19, did not return a message from The Associated Press on Monday. Powerade pulled his ad almost immediately after the March video.
In April, Morant countersued a Memphis teenager accusing the Grizzlies guard of punching him during a pickup court fight last summer at Morant’s home. The countersuit noted the lawsuit jeopardized relationships with sponsors including some “unconsummated deals.”
Burton, commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League from 2003-07, said research shows some athletes believe negativity can help them break out as a "perfect pitch person.” Burton wrote in 2001 about the demand for antiheroes or athletes with controversial images.
“I’m sure the people at Nike are trying to figure out, ‘Does this make him more relevant to a certain audience? And this is something we’re going to ride out?’” said Burton, who noted Nike doesn’t often give up on an athlete trending negatively.
Memphis suspended Morant on Sunday from team activities, though that's unclear what that involves in the offseason. The Grizzlies were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. Charity events are the biggest offseason events until training camp in late September. Players start receiving game checks when the season begins in October.
Criminal charges are not likely with no indication of where the latest Instagram video was streamed.
Morant has a home in Tennessee, where Republican leaders have repeatedly worked to relax state gun laws, including in 2001 when they allowed most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without first obtaining a permit. A federal judge has since cleared the way to drop that minimum age to 18.
The issues are much broader for the face of the franchise and one of the NBA's more marketable players.
“Hopefully, the young man will figure out what he’s got to do to turn the ship around if he wants to continue in not only the money, but his career in the NBA,” said Rob Prazmark, founder and CEO of 21 Marketing, whose clients have included the NBA and USA Basketball.
Morant now is facing criticism — even from his own fans. He remained among Twitter's top trending topics nationally even 24 hours after his latest suspension.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is scheduled for June 1. Commissioner Adam Silver, who cited Morant for “conduct detrimental to the league” when suspending him in March, traditionally holds a news conference before the Finals start.
Spotrac.com noted Monday that Morant is projected to be paid $33.5 million for the 2023-24 season if the NBA salary cap is $134 million. A suspension of 20 games or fewer would cost Morant $231,034 per game while more than 20 games would mean he loses $304,545 a game.
Morant said when the Grizzlies' season ended that he needed to work on his decision-making.
“I’ve got to be better in that area,” Morant said.
The Grizzlies hold the No. 25 overall pick in the June draft and now likely are preparing for the possibility Morant won't be available when the season starts in October.
The biggest question now is just how long that might be.
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