Following a hotly political weekend at the National Football League, some of the league’s corporate sponsors have begun speaking out — kind of.
Ford Motor Co., Under Armour Inc. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA issued claims that affirmed NFL players’ rights to kneel throughout the pre-game national anthem, while also sounding patriotic notes and confirming their support of the flag.
Ford, for instance, said the automaker would “respect individuals’ rights to express their views, even if they’re not ones we discuss. That is part of what makes America great.” In a tweet Sunday, Under Armour said it “stands for the flag and by our athletes to get free speech, expression and a unified America.”
The anthem protests, which started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick this past year, were originally supposed to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Some folks see them as anti-American screens, and over the weekend, President Donald Trump called for group owners to fire players who refused to stand up throughout the Star-Spangled Banner.
The tangled answers are the most recent edition of the challenges faced by companies in a world where the president makes public requirements and denouncements of organizations via Twitter. General Motors Co., Campbell Soup Co., ESPN parent Walt Disney Co. and Uber Technologies Inc. have faced calls for boycotts linked to their perceived support of — or space from — the White House.
“Because it’s a divisive issue, it isn’t a surprise that companies aren’t ready to bet a very definite claim,” stated Kabrina Krebel Chang, an associate professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business who studies corporate involvement in social issues. “That might be a statement that’s extremely middle-of-the-road but is also quite consistent. They are not going to please everybody.”
After Trump criticized players in NFL games that take a knee during the national anthem, coaches and players throughout the league Sunday joined the protests. Several NFL owners, a lot of whom were million-dollar donors to Trump’s campaign, joined in service for their players.
Two patrons, beginning with Nike, made more authoritative statements. The world’s biggest sportswear brand and manufacturer of NFL uniforms said it “supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on topics which are of great value to our society.”
Hyundai Motor Co. also took a more direct stance: “We stand for and respect individuals’ liberty to express their First Amendment rights in any peaceful way they choose. We also stand for inclusion, freedom and all that represents those values.”
The huge majority of the NFL’s 37 patrons have stayed silent. The league earns $1.25 billion from its corporate partners, that are eager to be connected with the most popular game in the U.S. and the national TV audience it attracts.
For Sunday’s broadcast, the evaluations were mixed. Matchups on Fox and NBC drew fewer viewers than a year before, while CBS reported the amount of people tuning in increased. Viewership for the whole year has been down.
“Tremendous backlash from the NFL and its players for disrespect of the nation,” Trump tweeted late Monday.
Meanwhile, fans in favor of and against the protests are calling for a complete boycott. Hashtags #BoycottNFLSponsors and #PunchThemInTheWallet are circulating on both pro-Trump and pro-player social websites. Some fans tweeted directly in the companies, saying they were no more clients. The hashtag #standforouranthem, tweeted by Trump, was also trending Monday.