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Nike and Under Armour Respond to the NFL Protests

Buffalo Bills players kneel during the American national anthem before an NFL game against the Denver Broncos on September 24th, 2017.
Buffalo Bills players kneel during the American national anthem before an NFL game against the Denver Broncos on September 24th, 2017.
Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

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Nothing is not political in the age of Donald Trump. From shopping to awards shows to the arts, not even breath mints can get away without taking a stance. This weekend, sports were the president’s target of choice.

At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, Trump called on the NFL to fire players who refuse to stand during the national anthem, a reference to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick began kneeling in protest of police brutality against black people in America. While a few NFL players followed suit, Kaepernick found himself out of a job for the 2017 season, and the non-sports press had almost stopped talking about it — until Trump’s Alabama appearance. On Saturday, the president took on the NBA, announcing via Twitter that he was rescinding his invitation to host the 2016 championship-winning Golden State Warriors at the White House after hearing Steph Curry wasn’t interested in attending. LeBron James’s response to the president canceling his invitation is now the 15th-most retweeted tweet of all time:

During Sunday’s football games, as many as 200 players kneeled or raised their fists in solidarity, while some coaches and owners linked arms with players. Other teams, like the Seattle Seahawks, chose not to leave the locker room until after the anthem played.

So where does that leave the brands that sponsor these leagues and their athletes? Under Armour, an official sponsor of the NFL and select NBA players, tweeted that it “stands by our Athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America." But then it deleted the tweet, sharing a more vanilla version instead:

Earlier this year the company came under fire for its CEO’s pro-Trump sentiment, which upset some of the athletes it endorses, like Misty Copeland and Steph Curry, and Twitter was quick to ridicule Under Armour for this latest side-step. Its statement, many pointed out, basically said that Under Armour “stands for nothing.”

Nike, an official sponsor of both the NFL and the NBA, was far more explicit about where it stands. On Monday, the company released a statement that it “supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.” Not one to shy away from politics, Nike has voiced its opposition to previous Trump actions. In January, for example, Nike CEO Mark Parker sent a letter to employees explaining that the Muslim travel ban was “a policy we don’t support.” In February, the brand released a new campaign called Equality.

Nike and Under Armour both have customers across the political spectrum, with loud protests coming from both directions about the responses. Nike has taken a consistent stance since last year’s divisive election, while Under Armour has failed to find a message it can stick to. While politics isn’t the only thing that contributes to sales, it certainly is a weighing factor. In August, the latter announced a plan to restructure amid declining sales, while Nike continues to dominate the sector.