THE BLOG
02/01/2017 01:51 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2018

Should Sports Brands Speak Out on the Muslim Ban?

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Ivy Cohen, President and CEO, Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications

When President Trump’s executive order suspending travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries was announced on January 27th, news and social media erupted with strong commentary. Among those expressing opinions were several high profile professional athletes and coaches.

With the nation still reeling from a particularly divisive election season that revealed major public opinion divisions across a variety of issues, it is worth examining the role of sports brands – particularly leagues, teams and athletes – that have become increasingly vocal on social issues. Most recently the NBA moved the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, NC due to the state’s withholding anti-discrimination protections for the LBGT community.  

Last year we saw several top athletes step into the policy arena by taking a major stand on gun policy. NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James opened up the ESPY Awards by urging all professional athletes to “use our influence and renounce all violence.”

While top leagues and professional teams have yet to go on the record with criticism or praise, numerous players and coaches are sharing their personal opinions.

Top Athletes Weigh In, NBA Coaches Speak Out; Organizations Quiet

NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, and U.S .Men’s Soccer team captain Michael Bradley are among the first professional athletes to publicly speak out against the ban.

Kanter took a stand, tweeting "… I am still in disbelief about the #MuslimBan. 'NO' human should be discriminated for their Race, Religion or Ethnicity.”

Bradley tweeted he was “sad and embarrassed,” and that the president’s executive order “is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country.” 

Earnhardt, who has 1.9 million Twitter followers, responded to a tweet from a Muslim NASCAR fan in Indonesia: “my fam immigrated from Germany in 1700s escaping religious persecution. America is created by immigrants.”

The only Muslim in the Super Bowl lineup, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, sidestepped the controversy at Super Bowl Opening Night. "I just pray that us as a country and a world can just be united as one. It's really hard for me to talk about this now… so I just want to focus on the game and just talk about football,” he said.

Several NBA head coaches were quick to join the debate, including the Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy, the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr.

Van Gundy stated that “We're getting back to the days of putting the Japanese in relocation camps and Hitler registering the Jews. It's just fear-mongering and playing to a certain base of people…”

Kerr said, “As someone whose family member was a victim of terrorism, having lost my father, if we’re trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, [it’s] really going against the principles of what our country’s about ...”

Major League Soccer Players Union chief Bob Foose said, “We are extremely disappointed by the ban and feel strongly that it runs counter to the values of inclusiveness that define us as a nation,” as the union assesses the practical impact on its players.

The NHL and NBA are monitoring developments and assessing how this executive order would apply to players from impacted countries. The New York Times reported concern from US Olympic Committee officials that the Muslim travel ban could hurt Los Angeles’s chances of hosting the 2024 summer Olympics.

Where are the Big Brand Leagues and Teams in this Debate?

Major U.S. professional sports leagues have invested significant time in crafting strategies to build their images and fan bases. With pressure to step up as advocates and role models for diversity and inclusion, we have seen leagues take strong stands on LGBTQ rights, domestic violence and gun violence over the past couple of years. Teams and athletes with strong brands have gotten involved in their local communities to advocate for education, disability support, healthcare, civil rights, and other key issues.

We will see if professional sports leagues find banning entry from certain Muslim countries to be an issue that resonates with their diversity and inclusion goals and use it as an opportunity to express their brand values. Some may not get involved at all unless they have specific players and employees who are directly impacted.

When Should a Sports Brand Advocate For or Against a Public Policy?

As we cultivate strong brands, the trend across industries is to build brands that “stand for something.”  So, how do sports brands decide when to speak up and which issues to tackle?

What is the brand mission? If your sports brand is built on performance or entertainment, there may not be many instances when your league, team or sports property weighs in on policy issues. If your brand is tied to community building, there may be good reason to affiliate with certain social issues.

Diversity and inclusion policy? If you have a basic commitment to not discriminate in hiring players and employees, you’ll need to determine your plan for involvement with issues around equality, civil rights and opportunities for minorities. If your brand has expressed a commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion, then issues about immigrants’ rights may be relevant to your portfolio. You need to determine which specific issues are of greatest importance to your stakeholders: team, employees, fans, investors.

Will it help or hurt the brand? Each time a brand makes a commitment to support a program or policy, you will likely appeal to segments of your target audience and may alienate others. It is wise to periodically survey a cross-section of stakeholders to get feedback on how your commitments are viewed.  No brand can please all of its fans all of the time. So, it’s wise to make choices that build a differentiated brand with a clear purpose, and that are likely to resonate with a passionate and substantial audience.

Follow Ivy Cohen on Twitter: @IvyCohen