7 NBA Players Making Big Bucks From Junk-Food Endorsements

If you root for LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, know that you’re also rooting for Dunkin’ Donuts’ new pork floss doughnut in China.

Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers. (Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

May 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Thanks to a plethora of endorsements, product placements, corporate partnerships, and other moneymaking avenues, James Naismith’s simple game of landing a soccer ball in a peach basket has turned into the multibillion-dollar business that is today’s National Basketball Association. While talent has followed all of the money, it’s created some rather absurd conflicts of interest too.

RELATED: 10 Pro Athletes Hawking Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Junk Food

The reigning king of NBA-endorsement cognitive dissonance comes during halftime and the seemingly endless mandatory TV time-outs. In 30- to 60-second slots, you might see Kevin Durant drinking a sugary Sonic slushy, Blake Griffin chugging a Red Bull, or LeBron James chowing down on a Big Mac value meal—even though King James has admitted (off-screen) that he hasn’t eaten McDonald’s in years. Some criticize sports stars for endorsing products that are linked to childhood obesity while simultaneously participating in programs like the Michelle Obama–led “Let’s Move” campaign.

While these star athletes are the epitome of fitness, the products they’re marketing are often major contributors to the obesity epidemic, especially among children. In 2005, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies published a landmark study looking at the role advertising plays in the diets of children and found that food advertising “affects children’s preferences, purchase requests and short-term consumption.” Another study, conducted by Yale researchers in 2009, showed that kids eat 45 percent more food immediately after being exposed to on-screen advertisements. But if there’s a universal truth in professional sports, it’s that money talks and moral obligation walks. Even though Charles Barkley famously said, “I am not a role model,” maybe he should have been.

These nine NBA players all have junk-food endorsements that you should know about before you start buying life-size cutouts and foam fingers.

LeBron James: Sprite

LeBron James. (Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images)

James is set to make $44 million this year from endorsements alone—not a bad supplemental income to his $21.5 million day job—and has deals with Nike, McDonald’s, Dunkin' Donuts, and several other Fortune 500 companies. But none of those companies let James create his own personal flavor, like Sprite did. Called LeBron’s Mix, the new Sprite formula has added artificial cherry and orange flavoring.

Kevin Durant: Sonic

Kevin Durant. (Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Similar to Sprite’s agreement with LeBron, Sonic let Kevin Durant, aka the “Durantula,” make his own slush. The All-Star has a blue raspberry base with Nerds candy blended in for that extra sweet kick to the face. A large has 710 calories and 189 grams of sugar.

James Harden: Taco Bell

James Harden. (Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The bearded volume shooter, whose Houston Rockets just lost a close Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors, can drown his sorrows in Taco Bell’s new A.M. Crunchwrap and a six-pack of Cinnabon Delights. Harden is the new face of Taco Bell’s “Breakfast Defectors” movement, which is trying to break McDonald’s enduring fast-food-breakfast hegemony.

Kyrie Irving: Pepsi

Kyrie Irving. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard went viral with his Uncle Drew video series, in which he wears prosthetic makeup to make himself look like an old man, then dunks on local park players. But was it all just in good fun? The crowd is full of attractive young people sipping Pepsi Max. The videos, hosted on Pepsi’s official YouTube channel, have more than 50 million combined views.

Blake Griffin: Red Bull

Blake Griffin. (Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

This one at least makes sense: Red Bull (supposedly) gives you wings, and Blake Griffin is one of the highest-flying superstars in the game right now. What makes less sense is promoting a product that might be harmful to children when you have thousands of kids trying to be just like you.

Derrick Rose: Powerade

Derrick Rose. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Coca-Cola–owned sports drink that has always played second fiddle to its predecessor, Gatorade, has long used athletes in its advertisements. Right now, 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose is its poster boy. Although sports drinks have about half the calories of most sodas and fruit drinks, they are filled with artificial dyes, and studies have shown sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to be linked with obesity.

Stephen Curry: Muscle Milk

Stephen Curry. (Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even though NBA players might be training 40-plus hours a week, most of their fans aren’t. So “Steph” Curry, 2015’s regular-season MVP, might be doing more harm than good by advertising a product that has 340 calories per standard bottle and whose maker is being sued for misrepresenting the term “lean protein.”