Michael Pavitt

I was drawn to a line early on in a piece by Joe Lockhart, the former NFL communications vice-president recently, where he reflected on how the organisation and teams were wrong in their response to Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest.

"No teams wanted to sign a player -- even one as talented as Kaepernick -- whom they saw as controversial, and, therefore, bad for business."

The "bad for business" phrase seems to be at the heart of the issue when athlete activism is considered, more so than their actual message.

As well as Kaepernick, we can look to the example of Arsenal distancing themselves from their own player Mesut Özil after he criticised treatment of Uighur Muslims at the end of 2019, which saw the team’s matches briefly pulled from Chinese television coverage and his likeness removed from video games.

Houston Rockets official Daryl Morey tweeting in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong last year was claimed to have cost the NBA "hundreds of millions of dollars" as the league’s long-term efforts to build their brand in China was placed into near instant jeopardy.

The financial ramifications make it understandable for sporting organisations to want to control what athletes say. As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, there is nothing that corporate sport hates more than uncertainty.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) are included in this, with the debate over Rule 50 continuing.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry, whose protest at the Pan American Games last year led to her being sanctioned by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, raised some excellent points in a letter published last week.

Berry described it as "completely reasonable and logical" that the IOC would seek to avoid controversy to protect sponsors and the host city from potential protests at the Games.

She is spot on.

Had Tokyo 2020 still been scheduled to take place next month protests by American athletes would have been almost guaranteed. Given the global nature of the Games and Trump’s twitchy Twitter finger, protests could have placed the host nation in a tricky position diplomatically.

The IOC should trust athletes to be active on social issues without fear of backlash ©Getty Images
The IOC should trust athletes to be active on social issues without fear of backlash ©Getty Images

There is merit to the view that the IOC would want to insulate its hosts from such a scenario, especially given the investment Japan has made into hosting the Games.

There is certainly a worry over what would happen if an athlete did produce a controversial protest, such as a racist or homophobic gesture. I would argue now that you would hope the likely negative public reaction would dissuade such an act, while the IOC would surely be able to act over breaching rules around anti-discrimination.

I tend to agree with the recent commentary that the IOC does not have much of a choice when it comes to easing Rule 50, with recent weeks making the policy appear completely unworkable given the backlash the organisation would receive.

This view is heightened by another point outlined by Berry, which is that the message the IOC send on athletes’ rights is "confusing at times and outright hypocritical at worst."

The IOC has been happy in the part to highlight the efforts of Tommy Smith and John Carlos at Mexico 1968 to call for an end to discrimination, yet seems reluctant to allow athletes to take a similarly active stance today.

To borrow a phrase from a former colleague, there is a gap between the values sport has, wants to have and should have, something which became apparent in the statements from sporting organisations, clubs and sponsors in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The statements have felt something of an obligation, leaving you questioning whether organisations believe the words written down or that they have a savvy communications department.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew summed the response up well when he wrote: "This is anti-racism as public relations exercise, as corporate strategy, as trending topic and hashtag and content nodule, a form of ‘values and identity-driven targeted marketing’."

Colin Kaepernick was seen as bad for business by the NFL but Nike have benefited from associating with the quarterback ©Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick was seen as bad for business by the NFL but Nike have benefited from associating with the quarterback ©Getty Images

I do wonder whether there is an increased responsibility for sporting organisations and sponsors to take an active stance on social issues, something the Commonwealth Games Federation called for in an open letter last week.

A major brand like Nike has been seen to have done this effectively in recent years, with the sportswear giant having lent their support to the likes of Caster Semenya and Kaepernick.

Nike's alignment with Kaepernick has clearly benefited the company and disproved NFL teams' claim that he was "bad for business."

Nike has also earned praise for its powerful anti-racism campaigns, including the advert with Kaepernick which carried the slogan "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."

While Nike clearly deserve credit for teaming up with the quarterback, a question was put to me recently as to whether the company had lived up to the words on its advert.

Would the company have made more of an impact had they threatened to walk away from their sponsorship of the NFL when teams were shunning Kaepernick over his stance?

It is an interesting point to debate and leads me to wonder how actions from sporting organisations and sponsors will mirror up to their words over the coming months.

Perhaps it could be worth revisiting their words in a year’s time to see whether any measures have been taken, whether that is implementing quotas or putting in place schemes to ensure a greater diversity within its organisations.

This is something that the media itself will have to consider and act upon too, given it largely remains dominated by white males such as myself.

I have some optimism in this regard, with the likes of the IOC, AIPS and FISU deserving credit for their Young Reporter programmes at multi-sport events, which have had a promising mix of races and genders.