The recent take-a-knee actions by many NFL players has taken center stage, thanks to divisive tweets and statements by the president.
While it's made for interesting TV and a diversion (perhaps intentionally by the White House) from Russian collusion, healthcare, tax reform and other important national discussions, it has also created a public relations problem for marketers whose audience and campaigns are connected with pro sports and its players.
At issue here is the individual's right to free speech, which has been wrongly conflated by the tweeter-in-chief to incorporate respect for our flag and our military.
Initially, before the president got involved, perhaps five or six players had spoken out and taken a knee as a way to protest what they felt has been unfair treatment of minorities by some police and some courts. But once the president jumped into it in his usual brash and uninformed way, upwards of 200 players – in many cases, entire teams and their owners – showed support by taking a knee and/or locking arms during the national anthem, directly in protest of the provocative statements by the president. At the same time, the athletes have made it clear that their actions in no way are intended to reflect disrespect for our flag or our troops, but rather are a way to call attention to an issue that impacts many of them, their families and communities.
It has been the president's trash talk that has made it into a broader issue, dominating headlines and diverting attention from more important things.
Many of the president's supporters are following his uninformed (or intentionally divisive) rallying cry, echoing his calls for boycotts of the NFL and its advertisers. Ironically, TV ratings for NFL games this past week have gone up. And, historically, boycotts of advertisers don't have any lasting impact, if any at all.
Marketers who advertise on NFL broadcasts and/or have tie-ins and endorsements with NFL (and NBA) players face a dilemma. Do they take a knee by supporting the players, or do they distance themselves by either doing nothing or directly criticizing the players?
My advice – Support the players’ right to express their views. Good ads and thoughtful statements can keep the issue on topic, making clear it is NOT about disrespect for our flag and our troops. In fact, marketers can use this as a time to put forth messages of unity that can be inspiring in these times of red and blue division, putting politics to the side and upholding basic American freedoms such as the right to speak out.
Let's see what happens this weekend as pro football returns to the field and the tube.