Over the past few weeks, protesting NFL players, following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have garnered massive media coverage. Some have cheered them. Others, including President Trump, have blasted their perceived lack of patriotism and called for them to be punished.
To some extent, recent political movements, including Black Lives Matter, have forced management’s hand. Yet something larger is at play here. Owners haven’t simply adopted their players’ cause as their own. Instead, the league and owners have tried to change the conversation: shifting attention away from racism and police brutality and focusing on their role as corporate citizens.
The idea of corporate citizenship has emerged in recent decades, alongside its analogue, corporate social responsibility, as a way of describing a wide range of programs and policies governing businesses’ rights and obligations in society. Even when it is undertaken with good intentions, however, emphasizing good corporate citizenship is not a solution to the problems of inequality and injustice that often spawn protests, forcing corporations into action. Instead, it can — and frequently does — distract us from the important work of redressing past and present injustices, especially against people of color.
One of the first instances of modern corporate citizenship emerged, not coincidentally, in response to civil rights activists protesting racial discrimination in department stores, restaurants and other businesses during the 1960s. In 1961, Philadelphia civil rights leader Leon Sullivan agreed to call off a boycott of Gulf Oil after company representatives agreed to hire a dozen or so skilled black employees. Gulf later joined with Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America to train black service station workers, viewing the venture as part of its “duty and responsibility [as] citizen[s].”
The 1970s saw American companies extend their corporate citizenship efforts to the global arena. Amid intensifying protests against American corporations operating in apartheid South Africa, companies took action. Reacting to calls for divestment, Polaroid in 1971 became the first American company to publicly condemn apartheid, South Africa’s system of racial segregation.
Rather than leave South Africa, however, Polaroid asserted that it could better address the plight of black South Africans by remaining in the country and contributing to efforts to improve working conditions there. Later, in one of the largest corporate social responsibility efforts ever undertaken, more than 120 American corporations joined the fight against apartheid by signing the Sullivan Principles, a corporate code of conduct for business in South Africa.
Since then, American companies have engaged in countless other initiatives to promote corporate citizenship. Beginning in the 1970s, Nike faced widespread criticism for labor practices in overseas factories where its shoes were manufactured. Initially, Nike denied responsibility for these abuses, noting that it did not own the factories.
But as with many cases of corporate social responsibility, pressure from activists and institutional investors influenced corporate behavior. During the 1990s, following protests at more than 40 universities holding contracts with Nike, the company shifted tactics, adopting a code of conduct for its suppliers and collaborating with Greenpeace to eliminate hazardous chemicals in the factories that produced its goods.
While these kinds of actions often involve a certain degree of change in corporate culture — an increased emphasis on employee safety, for example — they also are about branding, something that has become increasingly valuable in today’s economy. Companies can pad the bottom line by behaving more responsibly. In 2017, Fortune magazine ranked Nike No. 12 on its World’s Most Admired Companies list.
The NFL, a multibillion-dollar industry, is no stranger to the benefits of branding itself a good corporate citizen. In 1973, the league established NFL Charities to oversee its charitable giving. Subsequently, the NFL and individual teams doubled down on corporate social responsibility programs in response to criticism related to everything from massive tax-breaks for stadiums to players charged with domestic abuse.
Today, NFL teams contribute to a number of community programs including youth education and raising awareness about domestic violence. These programs, while having a real impact on the lives of thousands of Americans, including, recently, victims of Hurricane Harvey, are a poor substitute for the broad structural changes needed to address the many social inequalities in the United States.
The Trump era has stirred up profound debates about the country’s fundamental values, and corporations, including the NFL, have been forced to weigh in. NFL owners have expanded the purview of their corporate citizenship to include defending civil liberties and civic discourse. In doing so, the NFL hopes to retain public support by appealing to basic rights on which most Americans can still agree.
In response to the president’s attack on their players, a number of team owners reacted strongly, with 49ers chief executive Jed York labeling it “callous” and “contradictory to what this great country stands for,” while Miami Dolphins chief executive Stephen Ross called for greater understanding and “civil discourse instead of condemnation and sound bites.”
Calls from prominent chief executives and business leaders for greater understanding and mutual respect have gone far beyond the NFL in recent months. Just six weeks ago, Trump disbanded his two business advisory groups after a wave of resignations from executives protesting his refusal to unequivocally condemn white nationalists marching in Charlottesville.
In the statement announcing his resignation from the President’s American Manufacturing Council, Merck pharmaceuticals chief executive Kenneth Frazier declared, “Our country’s strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs.”
Providing a hint about corporate motivations, John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, tweeted that he was “proud to stand with leaders like Ken Frazier @merck #diversity is key to prosperity.” Indeed, since the 1960s, corporate profits have, to a certain degree, depended on companies’ embracing diversity and corporate programs that seek to build recognition of human difference, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and even political beliefs.
Yet corporate support for diversity, while perhaps well intentioned, has often undermined grass-roots struggles for systematic change and social justice — which we see in the case of the NFL.
Rather than reinforcing players’ call for an end to police brutality, both the NFL and team owners have worked to shift the conversation away from existing racial tensions and toward an understanding of good (corporate) citizenship as defined by a respect for freedom of speech and unity. Neither the league nor owners want to risk further alienating their fans, some of whom have already taken to burning team jerseys and starting petitions against protesting players. This move likewise reflects the constraints of a politics, adhered to by many Americans, that denies legitimacy to black protest.
In a statement released a day after President Trump excoriated the protesting players, Commissioner Roger Goodell highlighted this approach:
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
At its core, the NFL opposes the protests, preferring players to focus on community service and civic engagement. This preference embodies the league and individual teams’ vision, like so many other businesses, of corporate citizenship. By shifting the conversation from protest to good citizenship, the NFL and team owners are trying to define that citizenship in terms commensurate with corporate values and profits. In this and many other cases, corporate citizenship falls short of taking a stand (or in this case a knee) for black lives.