Nike Inc. and soccer superstar Neymar split ways last year after the company started investigating an allegation by a Nike employee that the Brazilian athlete had sexually assaulted her, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
In August 2020, Nike didn’t publicly give a reason for the early end to its endorsement deal with one of the world’s most recognizable athletes. Nike’s marketing contract with Neymar had another eight years remaining, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The Nike employee had told friends as well as Nike colleagues in 2016 that Neymar tried to force her to perform oral sex in his hotel room while in New York City where she was helping to coordinate events and logistics for Neymar and his entourage, according to the people, including former and current Nike employees, and the documents.
Neymar denies the allegation, his spokeswoman said. "Neymar Jr. will vigorously defend himself against these baseless attacks in case any claim is presented, which did not happen so far," she said in a statement. She said Nike and Neymar split for commercial reasons.
The Nike employee filed a complaint to Nike in 2018 and described the incident to the company’s head of human resources and general counsel, according to the people and documents. Nike hired lawyers at Cooley LLP to conduct an investigation starting in 2019 and decided to stop featuring Neymar in marketing amid the probe, according to the people and documents.
Nike ended its relationship with Neymar in 2020 after the athlete wouldn’t cooperate with the Cooley investigation, some of the people said. They said the probe wasn’t completed when the business relationship ended.
"Nike ended its relationship with the athlete because he refused to cooperate in a good faith investigation of credible allegations of wrongdoing by an employee," said Hilary Krane, Nike’s general counsel, in response to questions from the Journal.
Ms. Krane said Nike didn’t previously discuss the matter publicly because "no single set of facts emerged that would enable us to speak substantively on the matter. It would be inappropriate for Nike to make an accusatory statement without being able to provide supporting facts."
Neymar’s spokeswoman said the two sides had been in discussions since 2019. "It is very strange a case that was supposed to have happened in 2016, with allegations by a Nike employee, come to light only at that moment," the spokeswoman said.
Representatives for Neymar disputed the woman’s account during the Cooley probe but the athlete himself refused to be interviewed by Nike’s investigators, some of the people said.
An attorney for the Nike employee didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., 29 years old, signed with Nike at age 13, before he became a professional player in Brazil and then a star in Europe. He became the most expensive player in the history of soccer when Paris Saint-Germain paid FC Barcelona a transfer fee of about $260 million for him in 2017. The flashy goal scorer is a leader on the Brazilian national team and recently signed a contract extension with PSG, a top French club, through 2025.
Neymar was the face of the Nike brand in South America with signature shoes and apparel collections and was among Nike’s highest-paid athletes when the relationship ended. "Neymar Jr will no longer be a Nike player as of August 31, 2020," a Nike spokesman said that month.
About two weeks later, on Sept. 12, Puma SE announced it had an endorsement deal with Neymar. "Welcome to the fam @neymarjr #KingIsBack," the official Puma account tweeted. Puma has since released signature Neymar shoes and the athlete has appeared in marketing for the German company, a smaller rival to Nike and Adidas AG.
A spokeswoman for Puma declined to comment.
Neymar discussed his move to Puma in a message last September. "I grew up watching videos of great football legends such as Pelé, Cruyff, Matthäus, Eusébio and Maradona," he wrote. "I wish to bring back the legacy that those athletes created on the pitch. They each played in Puma, and each of them created their magic in the King."
Neymar has more than 150 million followers on Instagram. Along with Puma, he has marketing partnerships with Red Bull, Qatar Airways and PokerStars, according to his website. In recent months, Neymar unveiled marketing deals with apparel brand SuperDry and Epic Games Inc., maker of the popular "Fortnite" videogame.
Neymar traveled to New York City in late May and early June 2016 on a Nike publicity campaign where he visited Citi Field and met with basketball great Michael Jordan to drum up excitement for a shoe collaboration between Nike’s Jordan brand and the soccer star.
The woman, a longtime Nike employee who is still employed at the sneaker giant, was working with other Nike employees to coordinate logistics for Neymar and his entourage for the Jordan event in Manhattan, the people said. The group celebrated that evening at the Up & Down nightclub, the people said.
After midnight, in the early hours of June 2, hotel staff asked the woman along with another Nike employee to help Neymar, who appeared to be intoxicated, into his room at the hotel, the woman told friends and Nike colleagues that night and in subsequent days. She told these people that when she was briefly left alone in the room with Neymar, he took off his underwear and tried to force her to perform oral sex. She said Neymar tried to block her from leaving the room and then chased her down the hotel hallway while he was still undressed.
The employee shared the incident with several friends, family members and Nike employees that night and in the following days and weeks, the people said.
The employee made a complaint in 2018 when other women at Nike were stepping forward to share experiences of harassment and discrimination as part of a survey about the treatment of women at the company, according to the people and documents.
At the time, the employee shared details about the alleged incident with Monique Matheson, the head of Nike’s human resources department, and Ms. Krane, Nike’s general counsel, according to the people and documents.
Neymar continued to appear in marketing for Nike the following year. Around the time of the women’s World Cup in France, Neymar appeared in a June 2019 Nike commercial about female athletes and their dreams.
Also in June 2019, another woman accused Neymar of rape at a Paris hotel a month earlier. Neymar said the encounter with the woman, a Brazilian model, was consensual and he accused her of attempting to extort him. The Brazilian authorities dropped the investigation of Neymar, citing a lack of evidence.
Authorities in Brazil later charged the model with slander, extortion and procedural fraud. The slander and extortion charges were dismissed in 2019 and she was acquitted of the fraud charge in 2020. A spokeswoman for the model said she stands by her original account of what happened.
In June 2019 after the Brazilian model made her public allegation, the Nike employee approached Ms. Krane and Ms. Matheson to ask the status of the complaint she made about Neymar a year earlier, according to the people and documents. Nike executives told the employee they hadn’t taken any action because they had been under the impression she didn’t want them to, the people said.
Ms. Krane said that when the employee first relayed her allegations to Nike’s leadership in 2018, she did so on the condition of confidentiality. "As her employer, we had a responsibility to respect her privacy and did not believe it was appropriate to share that information with law enforcement or any third party without the employee’s consent," Ms. Krane said.
"In 2019, when the employee later expressed interest in pursuing the matter, we acted immediately," Ms. Krane said. "From the very beginning, we have treated the employee’s allegations and her experience with great seriousness."
In 2019, Nike ramped up its investigation into the 2016 incident, and lawyers from Cooley conducted interviews with witnesses, including Nike employees, the people said and documents show. Nike helped the employee retain counsel, and Nike agreed to pay her legal fees, the people said and documents show.
Cooley lawyer Amanda Main said her firm "conducted an extensive and thorough investigation, both within the company and through external sources."
Neymar’s spokeswoman said, "Similar to the sexual assault allegations made against him in 2019 — allegations which the Brazilian authorities found Neymar Jr. innocent —these allegations are false."
In meetings with Nike executives, the woman requested that Nike tell the public that Neymar’s behavior didn’t align with its values, start enforcing morality clauses in athlete contracts and adopt a code of conduct for endorsement deals, the people said.
On Aug. 30, Nike confirmed that Neymar was no longer with the brand. It made no mention of the reasons for his departure.
Nike continues to be the jersey sponsor for both Neymar’s club Paris Saint-Germain and the Brazilian national team, meaning its swoosh logo still appears on uniforms with Neymar’s name and his number 10.