There has been no shortage of coverage of Ryan Lochte and his antics in Rio. The decorated swimmer’s inebriated and irresponsible behavior cost Brazil valuable law enforcement resources and embarrassed the United States. Though Lochte apologized in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, as well as in a statement posted to Twitter, the damage was done, and four of his sponsors dropped him, including the Ralph Lauren Corporation.

 

The ordeal is reminiscent of the controversy that surrounded Lochte’s legendary teammate, Michael Phelps, in 2009. After Phelps’s historic run at the 2008 Games in Beijing where he broke Mark Spitz’s record for most gold medals won in one games, a photograph of the champion, in which he was using marijuana, was published in a British tabloid magazine. Kellogg Company, which had sponsored Phelps, dropped its sponsorship quickly, stating that Phelps’s “most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg.”

 

Though Lochte’s actions were objectively more reprehensible than Phelps’s were, the comparison shines a light on how the break will affect Ralph Lauren. Ostensibly, the company’s dropping Lochte indicates that it wants to disconnect the swimmer from its image as well. The problem is that Kellogg, a food manufacturer, arguably has less of an image to protect than Ralph Lauren does; a grocery shopper thinks more about taste and nutrition than about brand image when purchasing a product. A clothing brand has a more defined image and is more closely tied to it, and Lochte’s actions are, regrettably, an embodiment of what some think when they think of Ralph Lauren.

 

In Lochte’s words, he made a “stupid mistake” but doesn’t want to be seen as “a drunk frat boy.” Unfortunately for him, that is precisely what most of the world sees: immature, reckless, and disrespectful behavior seemingly justified in the perpetrator’s mind by his own status and privilege. Lochte has come to represent a section of the American population that travels to foreign countries and disrespects them, be it through vandalism or overindulgence in drugs, including alcohol.

 

(Slate)

(Slate)

Ralph Lauren’s endorsement of Lochte, then, looked even worse than other companies’ sponsorships because of the label’s reputation. With its established name, relatively high prices, and traditional approach to casual clothing, Ralph Lauren has long been synonymous with prep fashion. The ubiquitous logo of the Polo Ralph Lauren line is popular in many places and with many people but people around the world associate it most closely with the White American, the golf course, or the fraternity member. It is a brand that, to some, evokes luxury and class while also seeming pretentious and maliciously exclusive. The outfits that Ralph Lauren provided to Team USA for the opening ceremony in Rio exemplify its perceived inaccessibility. The blazers and boat shoes in red, white, and blue would have looked more at home at a country club than at a global sporting event.

 

The company made the right decision when it dropped its endorsement, but the measure might not be enough to make the world break the association between it and Lochte’s crime. Only time will tell if the public will be able to separate this episode from Ralph Lauren’s image.

 

What did you think of Ralph Lauren’s decision to drop Lochte? What about of Team USA’s opening ceremony outfits? Comment here or on Twitter @BillChangNY