Trump & Sport

Trump, Sporting Protest  and Brands that Take a Stand

2018 will see the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most iconic images in sport, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their leather-gloved right hands in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

A profoundly compelling portrait of sporting protest, it has become the ‘go to’ photograph for picture editors seeking to illustrate the concept.

As a consequence of the current political tumult engulfing the United States, the image’s status is unlikely to remained unchallenged for much longer.

Donald Trump has sport in his sights.

More specifically, he is enraged by those athletes that are vocal in their criticism of him and are employing silent protest in an incredibly potent way.

Trump’s criticism of Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and withdrawal of an invitation to Curry’s NBA Championship-winning side to visit the White House was followed-up by disparaging comments about NFL players echoing the stand taken by Colin Kaepernik in ‘taking the knee’ in protest during the game-day playing of the national anthem.

Mexico itself was back at the heart of the story once again last November as it played the United States in a soccer World Cup qualifier just days after Trump’s victory in an American election characterised by anti-Mexican sentiment. The Mexicans won 2-1 in Columbus, Ohio in what many would view as a moral victory in the very strictest sense.

The outcome of a tripartite Mexico-Canada-United States bid to host the 2026 World Cup may be determined by the extent to which FIFA members can ignore the President’s frequent Twitter pronouncements on international relations.

Meanwhile the thorny issue of the United States hosting a major event while Trump has been neatly side-stepped by the International Olympic Committee who awarded Los Angeles the 2028 games while 2024’s (which would coincide with the last final year of a second Trump term) were handed to Paris.

If Trump has achieved anything in his first year of office, it is to reaffirm sport’s effectiveness as a vehicle for protest.

And sponsor brands have not escaped the collateral damage.

When comments by Matt LeBretton of New Balance that “we feel things are going to move in the right direction” under Trump were interpreted as support for the President, pictures of burning New Balance shoes flooded social media platforms.

Under Armour’s Kevin Plank then suggested “a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country” prompting his own brand ambassador (Curry again) to respond that the word asset could be amended to provide a more apt description of Trump.

More obviously strategic responses to Trump came at half time of Super Bowl 51 in February where advertisers including Nike, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Air BNB airing work that was clearly in support of the type of liberal values that a Trump presidency threatens.

These brands know that, for the most part, their target audiences are younger and more progressively-minded than the average Trump voter and that future commercial success relies on them being seen to endorse a certain point of view and to take a stand rather than a back seat where politics is concerned.

As such, Madison Avenue will be even keener to get its teeth closer to the bone of the Trump administration come Super Sunday in 2018.

As with the current mood of protest across American sport, the responses of the nation’s biggest brands it will be something to behold.

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