On Monday morning, after President Trump’s response to the violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., was deemed inadequate by many, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier stepped down from the president’s American Manufacturing Council.
Late on Tuesday night, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank became the first to follow suit. And right after Plank, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich became the third CEO to drop. (Here’s a full list of who remains on the council.)
But there’s more to Plank’s move than what happened in Charlottesville. Under Armour has in fact been dealing with Trump-related PR fallout all year.
Plank was among a select group of business leaders invited to breakfast with Trump on his very first weekday in office, Monday, Jan. 23. From there, Plank’s association with Trump only caused problems for his sports apparel company.
“A real asset for this country”
In an appearance on CNBC on Feb. 7, Plank was asked to share his opinion of President Trump. Plank answered: “I think he is highly passionate. To have such a pro-business president is something that’s a real asset for this country. I think people should grab that opportunity.”
The sound bite—that Plank called Trump “a real asset” for the country—was widely reported in the media and came at a time when public figures, from CEOs to celebrities to athletes, were speaking out against Trump’s attempted travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries.
Under Armour’s own sponsored athletes were not pleased, and they spoke out. And Under Armour stock dipped.
The first to say something was NBA star Steph Curry, who is arguably Under Armour’s single most important asset these days.
Curry did not like Plank’s comments about Trump. Speaking to the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday, Curry said, “I agree with that description, if you remove the -et.” (What does “asset” without the e and t spell?)
The next day, two more Under Armour athletes followed suit.
Professional ballet dancer Misty Copeland posted a statement on Instagram. It read, in part: “I strongly disagree with Kevin Plank’s recent comments in support of Trump… I have spoken at length with Kevin privately about the matter, but as someone who takes my responsibility as a role model very seriously, it is important to me that he, and UA, take public action to clearly communicate and reflect our common values.”
Under Armour’s athletes were urging “public action.” (Now, six months later, they have it.)
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has an endorsement deal with Under Armour that included the release of an instant-sellout gym sneaker, also posted a statement on Instagram, where he has 76 million followers. Johnson said that Plank’s words, “were divisive and lacking in perspective. Inadvertently creating a situation where the personal political opinions of UA’s partners and its employees were overshadowed by the comments of its CEO… I partner with brands I trust and with people who share my same values. That means a commitment to diversity, inclusion, community, open-mindedness and some serious hard work.” It was a harsh rebuke.
“A choice of words that did not accurately reflect my intent”
It took one week, but with the pressure mounting, Under Armour took out a full-page ad on Feb. 15 in the Baltimore Sun, clarifying and walking back Plank’s praise of Trump. The ad appeared as an open letter from Plank, and read, in part: “I answered a question with a choice of words that did not accurately reflect my intent… I personally believe that immigration is the foundation of our country’s exceptionalism.”
The letter did not mention Trump by name. It was an effort at damage control, but Under Armour stock continued to dive through 2017, mostly because of business problems unrelated to the Trump comments.
Still, as Under Armour has muddled through a very bad year for the company—shares are down 37% in 2017 and it recently announced it will cut 300 workers—Plank’s Trump moment continued to cast a pall.
In June, in an interview on NBC’s “Sunday Today,” Plank said, “It was unfortunate that my words got characterized in a way that were meant to be divisive in some way, shape or form.”
And now, with CEOs responding to Trump’s handling of Charlottesville, Plank had a new chance to take a stand, and took it.
“Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics”
In a statement sent to press, Plank said, “I joined the American Manufacturing Council because I believed it was important for Under Armour to have an active seat at the table and represent our industry. We remain resolute in our potential and ability to improve American manufacturing. However, Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics. I am appreciative of the opportunity to have served, but have decided to step down from the council. I love our country and our company and will continue to focus my efforts on inspiring every person that they can do anything through the power of sport which promotes unity, diversity and inclusion.”
Now the same Under Armour athletes who criticized Plank back in February are applauding. Steph Curry, in the late hours on Monday, tweeted literal applause emojis. Will Under Armour’s stock respond in kind?
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) August 15, 2017
Plank’s stance, which might be seen by some as a reversal of his initial positive comments about Trump, is also a reminder of the tightrope that CEOs have had to walk in the Trump era.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.