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After leading the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl, quarterback Colin Kaepernick landed several big-name sponsorships. He appeared in ads for McDonald’s, Beats by Dre, and Jaguar in the years that followed.
But in 2016 he began kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to draw attention to police violence. And that’s when his lucrative endorsement deals dried up. His activism led his jersey to become a top seller, but no advertisers came calling.
Now, their shutout of Kaepernick might be over. Adidas definitely wants to give Kap a deal, according to Mark King, president of the company’s North American division. There’s just one catch: The athlete and activist must first sign with an NFL team. This condition reflects the ongoing ambivalence both the sports world and the business sector have had about public figures who get political.
Professional sports, race, and politics have intersected in the US for more than a century, with athletes of color repeatedly shunned when they have fought injustice or refused to follow racist dictates about how they should behave. During an age in which political engagement among Americans is widespread, Adidas is toeing the line. It wants the public to know it supports the nation’s most outspoken athlete but has put the fate of a would-be sponsorship for him in the hands of the league that forced him out.
When Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017 after his five-year run with the 49ers, no other team picked him up. The quarterback eventually filed a grievance against the NFL team owners, accusing them of colluding against him due to his politics. The grievance and the length of time Kaepernick has gone unsigned by an NFL team make it unlikely that he will resume his football career anytime soon.
He’s hardly the first athlete of color retaliated against for his political views. The boxing world exiled Muhammad Ali after he refused in 1967 to enlist in US Army during the Vietnam War. The following year, runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the black power salute during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico to protest poverty, lynching, and racism stateside. The sprinters didn’t lose any endorsements because they had none to begin with, but they were stripped of their Olympic medals and sidelined from their athletic careers as a result.
The Black Lives Matter effect
In the age of Black Lives Matter, however, it’s more difficult for sports organizations and companies to intimidate athletes into silence. When athletes stay mum about issues like police brutality, they risk alienating communities of color. After LeBron James hesitated to speak out about the 2014 police killing of 12-year-old Ohioan Tamir Rice, the slain boy’s mother called him out for it.
Since then, however, James has managed to balance activism with his lucrative sponsorships. He’s discussed the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, campaigned for Hillary Clinton, and addressed his own experience with bigotry after racist graffiti was left on his Los Angeles home last year.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham may want James to “shut up and dribble,” but none of his candidness about race seems to have endangered his status as a Nike pitchman: He has a lifetime deal with the company. Perhaps that’s because Nike itself has publicized its concerns about race relations. CEO and chair Mark Parker released a statement about race in the US shortly after Sterling and Castile’s high-profile police killings left the nation on edge in 2016.
“I am proud that Nike stands against discrimination in any form,” Parker said. “We stand against bigotry. We stand for racial justice. We firmly believe the world can improve.”
He ended the note with hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #stoptheviolence — a bold move for a multinational corporation with some customers who surely don’t share those sentiments.
That summer, even Nike legend Michael Jordan, famously reticent about political issues, spoke out about racialized police violence on ESPN’s Undefeated site. A slew of Nike-sponsored athletes, including Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony, have talked about racial injustice without risking their endorsement deals.
But the prominence of those athletes might explain why. Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who has far less name recognition than a James or a Kaepernick, lost two endorsement deals after kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. Granted, they weren’t with a giant like Nike but with the Air Academy Federal Credit Union and telecommunications company CenturyLink.
Executives face backlash too
It’s not only athletes who suffer for taking a political stance. Sports brands have taken a hit when executives have shared their political views. In 2016, Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, told the Wall Street Journal that the company supported Donald Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Reportedly the only major brand still making athletic shoes in the US, New Balance felt the initiative would hurt business.
The seemingly pro-Trump tilt to LeBretton’s words led to a public backlash, complete with outraged customers filming themselves burning their New Balance shoes. The executive did not say he backed Trump overall, only his stance on the TPP. But that got lost in translation — to New Balance’s detriment. Before long, an influential neo-Nazi blogger declared the footwear brand the “Official Shoes of White People.”
A connection to Trump also led Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank to face a backlash. Last summer, when the president didn’t immediately condemn the deadly gathering of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, Plank faced criticism for serving on Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. But this time there was a twist: The Under Armour executive received pushback not only from the public but also from the athletes his company sponsors, such as Stephen Curry and Misty Copeland.
I have always appreciated the great support and platform that Under Armour has given me to represent my community, gender, and career on the world stage. However, I strongly disagree with Kevin Plank's recent comments in support of Trump as recently reported. Those of you who have supported and followed my career know that the one topic I've never backed away from speaking openly about is the importance of diversity and inclusion. It is imperative to me that my partners and sponsors share this belief. I have spoken at length with Kevin privately about the matter, but as someone who takes my responsibility as a role model very seriously, it is important to me that he, and UA, take public action to clearly communicate and reflect our common values in order for us to effectively continue to work towards our shared goal of trying to motivate ALL people to be their best selves.
Growing disapproval of his link to Trump led Plank to step down from the council. In his public statement about the decision, Plank stressed, “Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics.”
Ambivalence about outspoken athletes remains
That athletes can now criticize the companies that sponsor them without repercussions signals that the tide is shifting. Being openly political is no longer a liability for athletes — in many cases. Kaepernick’s career, of course, has come to a standstill. But he’s also earned considerable praise for his politics from the broader culture. Last year, he won GQ’s Citizen of the Year honor and Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.
Unlike many of his athlete peers, Kap did not craft a carefully worded statement about racialized police violence. He sat during the national anthem, leading many of his critics to distort what his gesture actually meant.
They ignored his concerns about racist and deadly policing, instead accusing him of protesting the national anthem and the nation’s troops. This twisting of his message continues to make the quarterback a gamble for businesses, which is why Adidas can pay lip service to the idea that it supports his right to self-expression without actually signing him.
Publicly offering Kaepernick a contract with one very tricky condition is a disingenuous move that reveals sports brands haven’t completely overcome their ambivalence about politically engaged athletes.
Discussing his interest in Kaepernick, Adidas executive Mark King appeared to be speaking from both sides of his mouth. He maintained that Adidas is apolitical while feigning interest in activist athletes who “bring attention to something that moves the world forward, even if there’s controversy at that moment.” These athletes, he says, “represent the world today.”
In this divisive political climate, Kaepernick is certainly a sign of the times. While sports brands won’t risk publicly aligning themselves with the left or the right, this much is clear: There’s a profit to be made from activism in Trump’s America.