While sponsors are for now standing by Collingwood after a report found systemic racism at the Magpies, experts said its newest commercial backer, Nike, will be “weighing up” the value of sticking with the club “given the potential for a backlash.”
The public pressure on Collingwood amped up this week after a number of prominent First Nations and culturally diverse Australians signed an open letter, demanding club president Eddie McGuire quit and brand partners take action.
The club’s management, including McGuire, have not apologised for the damning findings in the report, which was triggered by complaints of racism by former Magpie Héritier Lumumba.
After the report leaked, McGuire made disastrous comments in a press conference where he described the report’s release as “an historic and proud day” for the club. Notably, there was no media wall of sponsors behind him.
A week later, at a second press conference, McGuire resigned. But instead of apologising and acknowledging harm, he laid out a list of what he saw as his biggest achievements.
In a statement, longtime Collingwood sponsor Emirates condemned racism and said it was behind the club “proactively adopting changes as per the recommendations identified in their report.”
Another backer, CGU Insurance, which said it was “deeply concerned” by the report, will end its sponsorship at the end of the 2021 season and redirect $1 million to programs that promote race relations.
McGuire’s comments insisting the club is not racist when the report found systemic racism at the Magpies, will likely complicate things for Nike, which has a global reputation for its longtime stance on race issues.
“Nike has developed a clear position in the US and globally about the need to call out racism and to be part of the change,” Dr Kate Fitch, senior lecturer of communication and media studies at Monash University, told HuffPost Australia.
“Nike would certainly be weighing up the value of sticking with Collingwood, given the potential for a backlash.”
In a statement, Nike said it stood “against racism and discrimination in any form,” and that it believed “in the power of sport to create an equal playing field for all”.
Notably, that statement ended: “We await Collingwood’s implementation of their strategy and action plan as a result of the Do Better Report.”
Fitch said that is likely not an expression of “unconditional support for the club,” but rather a deadline.
“They are prepared to offer Collingwood time to make things right,” she said.
Since Nike is known for large-scale advocacy campaigns to drive social change through sport, most notably with US footballer Colin Kaepernick, one expert said the brand could see its partnership with Collingwood as an opportunity rather than a PR nightmare.
“For Nike, to align their brand with a club working for social change and acknowledging their past, is something they would be very interested in doing, if the club are committed to doing that work in a genuine and lasting way,” said Dr Kasey Symons of Swinburne University’s Sport Innovation Research Group.
However, Symons said Collingwood should take Nike’s statement seriously: “If the work looks to stall, or there are further incidents that question the sincerity of the work, it would definitely put pressure on Nike.”
Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who made headlines for “taking a knee” during the US national anthem as a protest against police brutality and institutional racism, has a story that’s not too dissimilar to Lumumba’s.
Lumumba said Collingwood management and the PR department “actively tried to discredit” his complaints of racism over the years, and that he was ostracised at the club as early as 2013 when he spoke out about McGuire’s on-air slur against Adam Goodes. Some media followed Collingwood’s lead in discrediting Lumumba’s experience of racism at the club.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, has remained unsigned by any NFL team since becoming a free agent after kneeling in protest during the 2016 season.
Collingwood has refused to acknowledge Lumumba since the report found “profound and enduring harm to First Nations and African players” and has not yet apologised. During his press conferences, McGuire failed to mention Lumumba or apologise to those who have suffered racism at the club.
Fitch noted that waiting things out a little longer could be part of Nike’s strategy.
“It’s possible Nike wants to ‘be part of the change’ at Collingwood by ensuring the report’s recommendations are implemented,” she said.
“With McGuire’s departure, there is an opportunity for cultural change at Collingwood, but that will of course mean the club has to face up to their past.”
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