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Why Clif Bar Dropped Athletes In Dangerous Sports


Extreme athletes keep pushing the envelope. Free solo climbers scale forbidding rock faces with no ropes or protection, just a chalk bag and fingers of steel. Wingsuit wearers fly by at 100 miles an hour and big wave surfers ride behemoths that could pulverize them. But this month, Clif Bar, the nutrition snack company, decided they're going to drop a number of extreme athletes that they sponsor, saying the risk the athletes take are just too great for Clif Bar to continue to support them. We're joined now from Santa Fe by Outside Magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer, whom we occasionally turn to talk about the world of adventure. Grayson, thanks very much for being with us.

GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Is the company afraid that an athlete they sponsor is going to die in some spectacular way and that's bad for the brand?

SCHAFFER: Well, you know, I think that they've looked at the numbers and I think that it's not just that they're afraid, I think that at this point it's kind of inevitable with five top free soloists and BASE jumpers on your roster that given how dangerous these sports are that it's almost inevitable, in fact.

SIMON: I was struck by the statement that the company put out in which they said this bluntly - we no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error.

SCHAFFER: Yeah, and what they're speaking to there is essentially there's been this kind of progression in extreme sports over the last 10 or 20 years where the sort of normal types of risk that people are taking just aren't enough anymore. We're in this kind of fragmented media landscape where, in order to get seen and to get these sort of huge numbers of eyeballs that people need on them to support their endeavors, they're doing things without a safety net.

You know, you've got guys like Nik Wallenda, the tightrope walker, who's, you know, walking across the Grand Canyon without a rope. Or Felix Baumgartner, who sky dived out of space. And Alex Honnold, I think, is probably - he's another sort of key example of one of these guys who is bigger than the entire climbing world and most of that is because he's climbing 2,000-foot cliffs without a rope.

You know, free soloing and BASE jumping, you know, parachuting off of fixed objects where you can slam into the cliff where there's just so little margin for error, but if any of them thought this was going to happen to them, no, they wouldn't do it.

I mean, for a guy like Alex Honnold, he talks about it as being highly consequential, but not risky. So he believes that the chances of him falling are so small that the risk is actually pretty low. And for the rest of us, we would look at that and think my brain can't make that computation.

SIMON: Alex Honnold, we should mention, wrote an op-ed piece in what amounts to a response - for The New York Times website last week - in which he said the company's free to reach its own decision, but he said we will all continue climbing in ways we find most inspiring, with a rope, a parachute or nothing at all. Now, I'm assuming he's going to be able to find another sponsor, but what about other people?

SCHAFFER: He is bigger than all of the other people on this list combined. But in the last few years, climbers are able to make a living and can support themselves through sponsorship. But it's not like, you know, this is not like ball sports where you've got, you know, your big shoe and car contracts. I mean, these people are still sort of scraping by, you know, piecing together kind of a patchwork of sponsorship that basically just allows them to have enough income to make it from one climb or one BASE jump to the next. So the other guys might actually have a bit of trouble continuing this sort of freewheeling lifestyle that they loved.

SIMON: Would you anticipate - based on your experience in this realm - that other companies might feel some obligation to follow with their decision?

SCHAFFER: Yeah, there's a question of whether companies that sponsor these athletes that do these incredibly dangerous things and die doing, I mean, 24 BASE jumpers have died this year alone. It's such a dangerous sport. And, you know, I think that there's a pretty good chance that Clif Bar's move here will spark a conversation among the industry as to whether companies really should be attaching their sponsorship and their dollars to these kinds of risks that could inspire people, but could also inspire young people to take risks that ultimately get them killed. So, you know, I think it probably will start a conversation.

SIMON: Grayson Schaffer is senior editor at Outside Magazine. Thanks much for speaking with us.

SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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