National anthem clash puts NFL sponsors in tough spot

President Donald Trump's dispute with NFL players over the national anthem is pressuring the league's corporate sponsors to do something companies in the business of selling a product are loathe to do: choose sides.

As Mr. Trump continued the war of words, saying in a tweet on Monday that "many people booed the players who kneeled" before this weekend's slate of NFL games, Ford (F) said in a statement that it respected the right of players to express their views "even if they are not ones we share. That is part of what makes America Great," the automaker said in seeming to make a jab at the president's campaign motto, "Make America Great."

Along with Ford, the NFL's other sponsors include corporate giants such as Anheuser-Busch (BUD) McDonald's (MCD), Nike (NKE), PepsiCo (PEP) and Under Armour (UAA). According to ad research firm IEG, the companies spent a combined $1.25 billion with the league's 32 teams. That represents a 4.4 percent increase from the previous season.

"Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society," Nike said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.  

Some companies essentially punt, nodding to the First Amendment, America's military service people and other cultural symbols in equal measure.

"What I can say is that at Anheuser-Busch we have a long heritage of supporting the institutions and values that have made America so strong," said Matt Kohan, senior director of marketing communications at the beverage giant, by email. "That includes our armed forces and the national anthem as well as diversity, equality and freedom of speech."

The dilemma for such brands? Not alienating professional athletes, some of whom have ties to these companies, while remaining mindful of consumers who agree with Mr. Trump that refusing to stand during the anthem is disrespectful. Finding a middle ground between those views isn't easy, experts said.

"I think the NFL should be worried about it," said David M. Carter, executive director of the Marshall USC Sports Business Institute. "It should be an opportunity for both the NFL and the [The NFL Players Association union] to find a way to allow the players and others around them to speak their minds without it harming their businesses."

The dust-up over the anthem started when President Trump last week rescinded the invitation of NBA champions the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House after the club's star player, Stephen Curry, said he was uneasy about accepting the invitation. 

Although many in the sports world condemned Mr. Trump's remarks as tone-deaf, he then urged NFL owners to fire players who "disrespect" the flag by not standing during the anthem, a movement started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.    

Mr. Trump is by no means alone in his views. An online petition calling for a boycott of NFL sponsors until the league "cracks down on those who won't stand for our flag" has attracted on Change.org has attracted more than 5,000 signatures.  

As one Twitter user said: "NFL, get used to seeing this, Americans won't put up with you DUMPING on our proud anthem, flag, OR COUNTRY!." A headline on conservative news website Breitbart read "The NFL Hates America: 9 Pieces of Proof."

Before Sunday night's game, more than 200 players took part in the protests. Though most of the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to stay in their locker room while the Anthem was being played, offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a decorated former Army Ranger who had done three tours in Afghanistan, stood alone and saluted the flag. Sales of his jersey have since surged, and it is now the best seller on the Steelers, according to NFLShop.com.

Several NFL team owners, including Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, locked arms in solidarity with their players. Others such as the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft, who donated money to Mr. Trump's campaign, said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" by Mr. Trump's comments about the players.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.