Conviction has consequences for prominent athletes, particularly if they have lucrative endorsement deals tied to public perception of their likeability.
It’s a very personal choice. Now-Hornets owner Michael Jordan, then with the Chicago Bulls, once chose not to engage in North Carolina politics by endorsing former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt over then-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms.
Jordan was in the business of selling shoes for Nike (and still is). Jordan was quoted by author Sam Smith as telling a friend, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” Though there is no confirmation Jordan said that, the story has lived on for decades.
Now another basketball great with Charlotte ties faces similar questions. Twice of late, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry has made strong statements about politicians and their decisions. He criticized House Bill 2, the North Carolina law said to be discriminatory against the LGBT community. Later, Curry described President Donald Trump as an ass, after the CEO of Under Armour – Curry’s shoe and apparel endorsement – lauded Trump in a television interview.
When do celebrity athletes use their platforms enough, and when too much?
That Curry, the son of former Hornet Dell and a former star at Davidson, felt comfortable publicly second-guessing Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank says a lot about the sometimes under-utilized power our most prominent athletes possess. Curry signed a lucrative contract extension with Under Armour in 2015 that includes equity in the company.
In reality, Under Armour needs Curry more than Curry needs Under Armour. Curry approached Plank about his comments and the company put out a clarification, saying Plank was referring to Trump on job creation, not in general.
Now the Warriors, who won their second NBA championship in three seasons on Monday, are reportedly considering whether they should accept the traditional White House invitation, should Trump extend it.
It would be no surprise if the Warriors turned down that opportunity; along with Curry, forward David West and particularly coach Steve Kerr have voiced strong criticism of Trump’s first months in office.
Kerr went so far as to call Trump a “blowhard,” lacking the compassion and empathy to hold such a powerful office.
The broader question is, when do celebrity athletes use their platforms enough, and when too much?
This isn’t new: Muhammad Ali lost his boxing license over his refusal to accept a military commitment during the Vietnam War. Tennis star Arthur Ashe walked in protests over racial discrimination.
The new element is how fantastically wealthy top athletes can become these days. Does that embolden stars to speak out, or give them pause to play it safe?
The circumstance of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is telling. Kaepernick chose last season not to stand for the national anthem that precedes each NFL game. He has since become a free agent and, despite having started in a Super Bowl, has yet to sign with one of 32 teams.
Others, such as Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, are quite comfortable leveraging their celebrity to make a statement. James was blunt, for instance, in urging new NBA commissioner Adam Silver to get then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of the league over racially insensitive statements. Silver quickly forced Sterling to sell.
James understands that at his level of excellence, he’s more a partner with the Cavs or Nike than he is an employee.
Not every athlete has that juice. And those who do don’t necessarily see social issues as their problem.