When Missouri football players took a stand to boycott football activities until University system president Tim Wolfe resigned, the last thing on their mind was the potential impact it would have on sponsors and their athlete brand. This is the benefit of being a collegiate athlete that hasn’t been paid millions of dollars to represent a shoe or beverage company.
However, the tide seems to be shifting a bit as athletes have more power over their images and are increasingly able to connect directly to fans via social media. Gone are the days where an athlete’s only outlet was through a well-manicured and heavily tailored image produced by those trying to hitch their product to the player’s on-field exploits.
LeBron James and Derrick Rose took stances when they wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts. The St. Louis Rams players made a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture before a game last season. Of course, athletes taking these stances isn’t exactly new. Before sponsorship dollars hit the stratosphere, Muhammad Ali was taking a stand against the Vietnam war and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the fists seen round the world in Mexico City.
The relative freedom Missouri players had to take a stance is closely associated with the irrelevance of being attractive to a wide range of consumers. While there may be a small percentage of people that will not purchase Missouri apparel because of the players’ stance, the university and its football team’s brand go well beyond this particular incident. The same can’t be said for a professional athlete. Their statements and stances are directly attributed to their brand for as long as they are active, and many times even beyond that period.
Sponsors, leagues and teams are put in a tough spot when athletes choose to become socially active. More often than not, they sit the sidelines and wait for the situation to run its course. Any attempt to join the fray runs the risk of jeopardizing sales from a portion of the marketplace. Leagues also have a duty to their partners that must be balanced with the rights of an athlete to speak his or her mind. The NBA and commissioner Adam Silver had to navigate this issue when players were wearing the aforementioned “I can’t breathe” shirts instead of Adidas contracted warm-up apparel.
For now, these concerns don’t matter to collegiate athletes that chose to take a stance. Whether they maintain this level of social action when there are millions of dollars at play remains to be seen.