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Nike, an NFL sponsor, takes clear side in Trump vs NFL

After President Trump unleashed a verbal tirade on the NFL at a rally in Alabama on Friday, and NFL owners and players responded on Saturday, many wondered how NFL sponsors would respond to the controversy.

On Monday, Nike responded—and took a clear position.

In a statement sent to the media, the company said: “Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.”

It’s a short statement, but it speaks volumes. Nike came out in support of the players’ right to protest. That’s not the same as saying Nike supports the protests themselves, but even supporting the players’ right to protest represents a big risk for the brand.

Another NFL sponsor, Under Armour, sent out a tweet on Saturday about Trump’s comments, but the statement very carefully avoided taking a side. The company said it “stands for the flag and by our Athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America.” It is a good example of the cautious, sit-on-the-fence approach NFL sponsors typically take amidst scandals.

Ford, also an NFL sponsor, said on Monday, “We respect individuals’ rights to express their views, even if they are not ones we share.” The latter part of that sentence may look, to some, like a form of hedging—it suggests Ford may not share the view of the player protests.

Nike, unequivocally, took a side in the issue. It sided with the players.

Buffalo Bills players kneel during the national anthem before a game on Sept. 24, 2017 in New York. (AP)
Buffalo Bills players kneel during the national anthem before a game on Sept. 24, 2017 in New York. (AP)

The NFL’s official sponsors are mostly big, publicly traded, consumer-facing brands. This season, the list is: Anheuser-Busch InBev; Barclays; Bose; Bridgestone; Campbell’s; Castrol; Dannon; DMI; EA Sports; Extreme Networks; FedEx; Ford; Frito-Lay (PepsiCo-owned); Gatorade (PepsiCo-owned); Hyundai; Intel; Marriott; Mars; McDonald’s; Microsoft; Nationwide; New Era; News America; Nike; Papa John’s; PepsiCo; Procter & Gamble; Quaker; Sirius XM; Ticketmaster; Under Armour; USAA; Verizon; Visa; and Zebra.

Last season, $1.25 billion of the NFL’s revenue came from its official sponsors.

Nike has taken an obvious stance on the Trump vs NFL controversy, a story that is unlikely to go away in the coming weeks. For now, Nike stands alone. But other sponsors may be studying the response to Nike’s statement for an indicator of what they should do.

And the response has already begun.

On social media, search “Nike NFL” and you’ll find some Twitter users applauding Nike, but you’ll also find many claiming they will now boycott Nike products because of Nike’s support of the player protests.

If such posts scare fellow NFL sponsors, don’t expect many to take any clear side in their statements—or to issue a statement at all.

Yahoo Finance is tracking all the NFL sponsor statements for you over here.

For more on the business of the NFL and the outside factors that will impact its success this season, listen to our new Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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