Tattoo Advertising Could Be Next in NBA

A typical night of NBA action is crammed with more tattoos than an aircraft carrier's worth of sailors.

There are skulls, flaming crosses, wizards, swords, serpents, stars and sunbursts, hundreds of yards of barbed wire, mothers, girlfriends, wives, siblings and offspring, not to mention Superman, Mighty Mouse, Fred Flintstone and endless variations on the devil himself.

(And all this without Dennis Rodman.)

But soon, something much more shocking could be coming to a biceps near you: "This Space For Sale."

Agent Curious About Creative Offer

A candy company recently approached the agent for Portland's Rasheed Wallace and inquired about buying space on what is already a crowded billboard of human flesh.

"My job is to bring offers to my client's attention," agent Bill Strickland said Tuesday from his office in Washington, D.C. "I toss out the ones I think are ludicrous. I thought this one was creative — we talked about the kind of tattoo that lasts only so long — and being a lawyer, I think it presented some interesting free-speech issues."

Wallace is a curious choice, to say the least. 'Sheed already sports more artwork than you'd find at most starving-artist hotel liquidation sales. On top of that, he only makes it to the end of so many games. As of Tuesday night, when Wallace tied the single-season record for technical fouls (38) he set just last year, he'd already been ejected a league-high six times.

But that's beside the point.

Money Talks

The real issues are whether the ballplayers are mercenary enough to wedge corporate logos onto the available space alongside loved ones, and what the league is going to do about it.

About the first part, there's no doubt. When it comes to mercenary, the Hessians could learn a lesson from today's superstars. Their spiritual godfather is former Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson, who, embroiled in a salary squabble, told skeptical reporters that he was serious about a threat to play baseball in Japan.

"For a certain amount of money," Jackson said with a straight face, "you'll eat Alpo."

So while Wallace probably won't be the test case — "My client is very proud of what he already has on his body," Strickland said. "He may not want a commercial appearing, even temporarily, among all his personal statements." — there is no shortage of ballplayers lining up.

"Depends," New Jersey Nets guard Stephon Marbury said, "on how much money they'd pay."

Drawing the Line

Fortunately, the league is prepared to draw the line on endorsement deals somewhere near the top of the players' sneakers. The NBA higher-ups aren't wild about some players' ideas of exterior decorating, and no doubt wish the tattoos would just disappear. But they remember the flap that ensued last year when Allen Iverson appeared on the cover of Inside Stuff with most of his tattoos airbrushed away. So they're taking a different tack on this latest proposed fad.

"We do not allow commercial advertising on our uniforms, our coaches or our playing floors," a league spokesman said, "so there's no reason to think we'll allow it on our players."

Actually, the logos of league-sanctioned manufacturers appear on the uniform, but the league gets paid for those. Its opposition to tattooed logos probably has more to do with the players union's contention that the NBA would be unreasonable to deny a player permission to put whatever he wants on his body. Making matters worse, Wallace's agent said the candy company that approached him is not Nestle, the official candy sponsor of the NBA.

"But there's nothing on the books that says he can't do it," Strickland said.

Maybe yes, maybe no, but ask yourself: Do we really need to see Shawn Kemp sporting a "Jenny Craig" logo, Gary Payton pushing "Rolaids," Brian Grant shilling for "Supercuts," or the entire Dallas Mavericks squad decked out in matching "Taco Bell" chalupas?

In a word, no. This is a bad idea that can only get worse. The league gets younger and more mercenary every season. Four years ago, an informal Associated Press survey found that 35 per cent of the NBA players sported tattoos, and potential sponsors should recall that they were already a fickle bunch to begin with.

Back then, veteran Rick Mahorn had a permanent "Mother" tattoo and his children's names — but his wife was nowhere to be found.

"You may get remarried," Mahorn reasoned, "but you always have your mother and children."