Recently, the Miami Heat’s LeBron James began endorsing Energy Strips, a caf­feinated product that dis­solves on the tongue. The deal is coming under fire for the impact his endorse­ment might have on young fans. We asked Dan Lebowitz, exec­u­tive director of Northeastern’s Sport in Society, about ath­lete endorse­ments and their poten­tial pitfalls.

Ath­letes use endorse­ment deals to increase their fame and for­tune. But can high-​​profile endorse­ments have a neg­a­tive affect?

Endorse­ments can have a neg­a­tive affect, par­tic­u­larly for the younger mind, which can’t nec­es­sarily dis­tin­guish between fact and an endorse­ment for which an ath­lete is get­ting paid. Take a performance-​​enhancing product, for instance. Because an athlete’s public plat­form is so great, and he or she are often seen by kids as role models, it’s disin­gen­uous to endorse these types of things because that product may not have any impact on the per­for­mance of a youth. Young people want to emu­late ath­letes, and also reach the same level of success.

What about an athlete’s influ­ence makes them a prime can­di­date for an endorsement?

We live in a world moved by celebrity cul­ture, whether we like to admit it or not. We have doc­tors, sci­en­tists and teachers who are doing amazing work, yet these pro­fes­sions somehow take a back seat to high-​​profile celebri­ties when it comes to adver­tising and media coverage. Sport is a sort of common denom­i­nator; it doesn’t matter what your racial back­ground is, nor your eth­nicity, reli­gious pref­er­ence or socioe­co­nomic status.  Ath­letes are prime can­di­dates for endorse­ments because they have unbe­liev­able rec­og­niz­ability. Between tele­vi­sion, the Internet, news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, they are every­where — and if they’re playing a major sport, they may even have inter­na­tional reach.  So, this impres­sive level of vis­i­bility, com­bined with the amazing power of celebrity does make them tar­gets for product endorsements.

Good health is a cor­ner­stone of an athlete’s suc­cess, so is there a con­flict in LeBron’s choice to endorse a product that pro­motes caf­feine intake? 

In many respects, the problem with LeBron’s product is that there are a lot of neg­a­tive effects of over-​​caffeinating your­self. To asso­ciate caf­feine as a direct line to suc­cess to kids is in many ways irre­spon­sible. Unless that product is tar­geted only to an adult audi­ence, an integrity problem arises almost imme­di­ately. You have a problem in terms of the mes­sage and why the mes­sage has a great chance to taint the minds and per­spec­tives of young people who don’t ques­tion the product, they just embrace the fact that LeBron is using it.