By virtue of their simple, relentless meritocracy, sports have always been a vehicle for inclusion. But this month, perhaps the biggest merit belongs not to the players on the field but to the companies that clothe them. Adidas and Nike both took huge steps to redefine their sense of responsibility as corporate citizens where lesbian, gay and transgender issues are concerned.
Adidas announced it was changing all of its endorsement deals to encourage LGBT athletes to come out publicly without fear of losing their contracts. Nike made its own statement by terminating its long-term endorsement deal with boxer Manny Pacquiao after he said gay and lesbian couples were worse than animals while campaigning against marriage equality in his run for a senate seat in the Philippines. The move comes just months before he is supposed to step inside the ring for his last fight on April 9.
"We find Manny Pacquiao's comments abhorrent. Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community," a Nike spokesperson said in a statement released to the media. "We no longer have a relationship with Manny Pacquiao."
Athletes get big money to represent companies, and companies have expectations for how they want to be represented. Saying something as offensive as Pacquiao's comment should have consequences, and now it clearly does.
That is why Adidas' declaration is a perfect, positive contrast, because some things that shouldn't be hard to say in public might now be just a little easier for LGBT athletes. At an Adidas-sponsored conference earlier this month titled "Team Pride: Levelling the LGBT Playing Field," Adidas CFO Robin Stalker announced that the company is cool if any of the athletes it sponsors should come out publicly. Adidas sponsorship contracts will now have a clause that reads:
Adidas acknowledges and adheres to the principles of diversity, as this is a central part of the Adidas Group philosophy. Therefore Adidas warrants that this agreement will neither be terminated nor modified in case the athlete comes out to the public as a member of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.
Remember, people can still be fired for being gay, lesbian or transgender in 30 states here in the United States. So seeing one of the world's big international sportswear conglomerates lay this particular question to rest is a big deal because it goes to the heart of one of the reasons that athletes might choose not to come out publicly. For decades, LGBT athletes have had to ask themselves two big questions, starting with, "If I'm out, will they let me play?" And even as that answer becomes more reliably affirmative, there's still the immediate follow-up: "How will this affect my career?"
"This goes explicitly to one of the concerns of any athlete coming out: What's this going to do to my sponsorship?" Howard Bragman, a public relations guru, told ESPN.com last week. Bragman is known for his role in advising athletes, including football player Michael Sam, as they decide whether to come out publicly.
We once we saw players like Major League Baseball's Glenn Burke have his big league career destroyed by being out in the clubhouse in the late '70s and early '80s, and international tennis stars like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova see their endorsement money dry up shortly after they came out publicly. While the experiences of King and Navratilova helped create the expectation that coming out might be liberating, it was also expensive as advertisers shied away from being identified with gay or lesbian athletes.
"Adidas is not just a leader in business but an important voice in the world of sports and entertainment," said Brian Sims, a Pennsylvania state representative who was also the first active football team captain in NCAA football history to come out as gay in 2000 when he played at Bloomsburg University. "That they've made a moral and ethical choice should never be divorced from the fact that they've also made a sound business choice with their leadership."
Said Bragman, "When you come out, a big part of the calculus is how it's going to affect sponsorships. Now a gay role model in sports might get more sponsorships because of it. Now it's a value add.
"Nobody has been this explicit. [This] makes it 1,000 percent clear where Adidas stands."
On a whole other level, this isn't just about good corporate citizenship: It's gotta be about the shoes. Current events reflect that this is another area where Nike and Adidas are keeping score as they go toe-to-toe for the attention of consumers as well as athletes. Nike has its #BeTrue collection and established relationships with LGBT sports trailblazers like Jason Collins and Brittney Griner.
"Nike has always done great work on the LGBT front," Bragman said. "And Nike has stood by their out athletes."
But Adidas has been ramping up its own efforts, making a point of signing out Olympic diver Tom Daley to represent its NEO streetwear line in 2014.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've worked with Nike on both its annual LGBT sports summit and work with LGBT youth. But speaking as an LGBT person, I'm happy to see both Nike and Adidas take these kind of steps. If Adidas works as aggressively on behalf of LGBT people who want to play and/or enjoy sports as Nike has to guarantee that people can come out and then get back to work in the sports world, it sounds like a good thing for all athletes and fans.