Are Athletic Brands Doing Enough for African-Americans?

black lives matter protest
Protester Nathaniel Dyer carries a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest near Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta.
REX Shutterstock.

For decades, African-American culture has been the creative muse and the largest constituent of many of the fashion industry’s most sought-after brands.

Athletic brands, in particular, have had a long history of signing African-American athletes for endorsement deals and sponsoring major athletic tournaments focused on black youth.

At its best, the relationship between African-American communities and sneaker brands is one defined by mutual inspiration, the uplifting of black athletes and a value for cultural expression, according to Crystal deGregory, professional historian and executive editor at nonprofit organization HBCUstory.org.

At its worst, themes of corporate utilization, as well as a lack of support from companies toward the communities from which they profit most, are prevalent.

One may think of it as exploitation or cultural appropriation, where cultural expressions and innovations are borrowed heavily [from a community] without a value beyond those things which are monetary,” deGregory explained. “[That] could lead one to deduce that this is merely a matter of what a company can profit from the community, rather than what they can mutually profit from each other. It isn’t always exactly a win-win situation.

What’s more, a search for instances in which athletic brands have taken a stand on controversial issues that negatively impact minority communities is not likely to yield a plethora of results, according to South Carolina-based community outreach consultant KJ Kearney.

I can [more readily] think of occasions where [brands] stood behind a cause that really couldn’t be refuted,” Kearney said, referencing less-controversial charitable initiatives started by several athletic brands. “They do just enough to make people feel like they’re down for the cause but without having to take a definitive stand on anything.”

But perhaps the same can be said of any organization trying to do business — unless the firm has historically espoused a political agenda or its mission is rooted in advocacy.

More often than not, Jemayne Lavar King, author of “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture” and professor at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., says taking a side on political and social issues is bad for business.

I’ve seen brands contribute money and give internships and things that most companies do,” King said. “But as far as a cause like Black Lives Matter or water pollution in Flint, Mich., or the situation in Standing Rock, it’s typically not in a company’s best interest [to take a stand] — even if [the company] is directly affected or [management] can identify employees who are affected.”

In July, Nike CEO Mark Parker made headlines when he added his voice to the growing list of public figures taking a stand on issues of race, violence and policing in America.

black lives matter protestDemonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta. REX Shutterstock.

In an open letter to Nike’s 32,000 employees — 52 percent of which identify as nonwhite, according to the brand’s 2014-15 Business Sustainability report — the CEO said the company “has a long history of supporting the marginalized and those whose voice is not always heard.”

Parker expressed concern over the police shooting of Alton Sterling, which took place in Louisiana; the police killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota; and the killing of five police officers at a protest in Dallas. He ended his note with the controversial social media hashtag: #blacklivesmatter.

King said Parker’s move was both “admirable and risky.”

I believe his statement was both justified and in earnest — it was probably too risky not to be authentic,” King said.

For her part, deGregory said it’s tough to fully determine the motives behind moves such as Parker’s or any corporate initiative aimed at supporting causes that impact minorities.

There are [elements] of these things being transactional, and there are [elements] of these things being something else — the degree to which these things are more one thing than the other could be a matter of debate,” deGregory said.

If athletic firms want to effect more change in African-American communities, King and Kearney said a good starting point would be having more minorities in higher positions at their companies.

I don’t expect corporations to be my friend, but it would make me feel better if they had more minorities at the table,” Kearney said.

In addition to calling for more firms to be “about the business of leveling the playing field for minorities, including women,” deGregory said she’d like to see both consumers and brands working together to create much-needed change.

At some point, we need pushing and pulling on both sides: We need communities pushing companies to do more, to say more, stand for more and give back more,” deGregory said. “And we need companies to pull communities and help them along the way, to afford them the ability to do and be for themselves what every American wants to be and do, which is to live a good life — and maybe along the way, possess a few good things.”