Toronto Star


Superstar athletes such as LeBron James and Derrick Rose can speak out on social issues without jeopardizi­ng endorsemen­ts,


As his team warmed up for a Dec. 6 game, Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose took the court in a black T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.”

Those words were the final ones uttered by Eric Garner as a New York City police officer climbed atop his back and applied a chokehold that killed the 43-year-old father of six. The videotaped confrontat­ion ignited intense debate over racism and police brutality, and when a grand jury declined to indict the officer in Garner’s death, the decision prompted a wave of protests in the U.S.

They eventually reached the NBA, where Rose quietly wore the shirt before a game against Golden State.

If Rose, who is Adidas’s highestpai­d NBA star, thought his statement would jeopardize an endorsemen­t portfolio worth a reported $19 million (U.S.) annually, he didn’t appear concerned.

Neither did NBA superstar LeBron James, who helped organize players to wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts two nights later.

Since then, the trend has spread to other NBA teams, to NCAA sports and to the NFL, where Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins appeared pre-game in a T-shirt demanding justice for police shooting victims Tamir Rice and John Crawford.

The gestures have observers calling 2014 the Year of the Activist Athlete, but James’ $53-million annual endorsemen­t income shows we’re also still in the age of the athlete-brand ambassador.

We once thought those two identities mutually exclusive, but none of the players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts has been fined, nor have they lost sponsors.

With Rose and James taking the lead, the last month has shown that pitchman and protester can coexist within the same athlete, and that a social conscience doesn’t make a sports star less marketable.

“Their (personal) brands are solidified and certified,” says John Carlos, Olympic bronze medallist and social activist. “Who’s going to run away from LeBron James? Why would (sponsors) shy away from these young athletes expressing that they are a part of society? The first amendment gives them the right to be able to express themselves.”

In 1968, Carlos and Tommie Smith won medals in the men’s 200-metre sprint at the Olympics in Mexico City, then raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem.

They did it to show solidarity with civil-rights protesters back home and oppressed people worldwide, and Carlos knew the move would bring consequenc­es. Following the Games, race directors refused to book them in track meets, effectivel­y ending their sprint careers.

But the risk he and Smith took also helped create an environmen­t where today’s sports stars feel empowered to make social statements without jeopardizi­ng their jobs.

“There is no line in the sand anymore. It continues to move,” says Chicago-based sports marketing agent Quency Phillips.

The transforma­tion took time. A generation after Smith and Carlos, the Chicago Bulls embodied the push-pull of political activism pitted against brand ambassador­ship.

During a 1990 senate campaign in North Carolina, Nike icon Michael Jordan famously refused to endorse African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt because, he said, “Republican­s buy sneakers too.”

One of Jordan’s teammates that season was Craig Hodges, an active member of the Nation of Islam who would later sue the NBA, claiming teams blackballe­d him over his problack political views.

While Jordan and Hodges occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum, the last month has seen athletes maintain a strong marketing presence while tapping into their inner activist.

“Jordan used his voice to not talk, but when he talked about something it was usually about business, the brand,” Phillips says. “Derrick Rose doesn’t talk at all, but (I Can’t Breathe) will speak for him, and it does resonate because other players look (up) to D-Rose.” What’s changed? People’s attitudes, for one. When Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. army in 1967, critics ripped the move as cowardly and divisive, but now it’s viewed as a principled stand against the Vietnam War. And Ali, who appeared in Adidas’ “Impossible Is Nothing” ad campaign, remains marketable 33 years after his final bout.

In 2012, when LeBron James gathered his Miami Heat teammates in a group photo wearing hooded sweatshirt­s, an homage to slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, neither the Heat nor Nike complained.

Meanwhile, social media allows teams and sponsors to monitor realtime reactions to everything athletes do. If James’ and Rose’s fans, all of them potential customers, react positively to “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, brands have little motivation to oppose the move in public.

“Our athletes . . . are passionate about looking for ways to not only enhance their own capabiliti­es, but also the world around them,” said Nike Canada spokeswoma­n Claire Rankine in an email to the Star. “We encourage our athletes to support their communitie­s, lead the conversati­on and to give back to the causes that matter to them.”

But the growing acceptance of protest in the sports arena opens an avenue for companies and people to commandeer social movements for commercial gain.

When protests in Brazil threatened to disrupt last summer’s World Cup, sponsor Coca-Cola said it would consider incorporat­ing social unrest into its ad campaign. And as more pro athletes don “I Can’t Breathe” Tshirts, an Illinois resident has tried to copyright the phrase to use on a clothing line.

Still, Montreal-based track and field agent Kris Mychasiw says he’d encourage any athlete he manages to take a public stand on a social issue. While brands still gravitate toward successful athletes who are unlikely to offend consumers, Mychasiw says they’re also attracted to people committed to something bigger than themselves.

“It shows they’re passionate, when so many athletes are happy just going through the motions,” says Mychasiw. “It’s great that the top-tier athletes are doing it. Jordan was Jordan, but I respect LeBron for getting involved politicall­y.”

Carlos points out that several athletes have recovered their marketing appeal even after committing crimes. If Mike Tyson can recover from a 1992 rape conviction to become the subject of a cartoon series and a line of high-end T-shirts, Carlos says contempora­ry athletes shouldn’t worry showing empathy for Eric Garner will damage their marketabil­ity.

“LeBron James can sell a lot of basketball (shoes). Shaquille O’Neal can sell a lot of Buicks,” Carlos says. “They just try use intimidati­on to make people think that if I stand up as a human being to be concerned about what’s happening, I’m subject to lose all of this.”

 ?? CHRIS SWEDA/TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE ?? Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose was one of many NBA players willing to lend public support to a social cause.
CHRIS SWEDA/TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose was one of many NBA players willing to lend public support to a social cause.

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