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Under Armour CEO says apparel company opposes travel ban

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BALTIMORE - The CEO of Baltimore-based sports apparel company Under Armour is responding to criticism he received after calling President Donald Trump “an asset to the country.”

Kevin Plank wrote an open letter to Baltimore published as a full-page advertisement in The Baltimore Sun Wednesday. He wrote that his choice of words during an interview with CNBC last week “did not accurately reflect my intent.” 

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The executive also said Under Armour will publicly oppose the travel ban President Trump imposed in January on seven Muslim-majority countries. A federal appeals court last week declined to reinstate the ban. The president has since indicated he may sign a new travel ban.

“With an anticipated new executive order on immigration set to come out, we will join a coalition of companies in opposition to any new actions that negatively impact our team, their families or our community,” Plank wrote, adding that “immigration is a source of strength.”

Three celebrities Under Armour sponsors - basketball star Stephen Curry, actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and ballerina Misty Copeland - were among those voicing concerns about his praise of Trump.

Under Armour shares have fallen since the controversy erupted. The company has long been viewed as progressive, admired in part for its huge investment in rebuilding parts of Baltimore, where Under Armour is based.

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Plank says the company stands for equal rights and job creation. “Our team, like our country, is diverse by race, religion, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation and point of view,” he wrote. “In our city and at Under Armour, our diversity is our strength.”

Whether the dust-up between Under Armour and stars like Curry keeps mushrooming or fizzles out, this much is true: In an era of contentious politics, the dynamic between high-profile athletes and the big-money sponsors they endorse is growing more complicated.

A player in the rare stratosphere that Curry occupies holds cards, and can now hold a company accountable for its politics and stances on social issues. Time will tell whether Curry, or anyone else, is willing to play the ultimate card by walking away.

“Easier said than done,” said Chris Chase, a partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, who works on legal aspects of high-profile sports-marketing campaigns.

“Yes, Steph Curry can terminate tomorrow if the contract gives him that ability, and on (Friday), he’d have a new deal because of who he is,” Chase said. “But it might not be as good a deal. For Nike, he might be one of 20 basketball players and may not be the featured guy.”

Curry is hardly the first athlete to take a stand on politics and social issues over the past 12 months. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem was a symbolic protest over treatment of blacks in America. More recently, Tom Brady and the Patriots have taken different stands on their like or dislike of the president.

Where Curry’s situation differs is that there’s an ongoing, two-way relationship with heavy financial stakes involved.

And Under Armour isn’t the only big shoe company trying to stay out front when athletes who represent them take or consider taking stands on political issues.

Last weekend, Nike went big with an ad campaign featuring LeBron James, Serena Williams and openly gay soccer player Megan Rapione touting “Equality” - the latest in a number of pro-LGBT statements the company has made over the past several months.

“Clearly, it shows they’re listening, seeing what the conversations are, knowing what the athletes are saying and putting it together,” Favorito said. “They’re saying, ‘We believe you, we support you.’”

There’s a lot at stake, particularly for a company like Under Armour, which had positioned itself to reshape a sneaker business that Nike has dominated for decades. Curry helped trigger a 350 percent uptick in Under Armour’s sales of basketball shoes, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Jay Sole .

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