One of the top high school basketball recruits this season is a 7-foot Bahamian, DeAndre Ayton. He once played for a Bahamas national team, which Nike outfitted. He enrolled last fall at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, where Nike dresses the basketball team. In September, he accepted a scholarship from Arizona, where, not coincidentally, Nike outfits the team.
In fact, I read a lot about him on a sports news Web page sponsored by, yes, Nike.
The brand of basketball shoe — or football cleat — is like a gateway drug for college athletics, influencing where the best players matriculate. A Louisville Courier-Journal story a few years ago found that over half of the top 10 boys’ basketball recruits between 2011 and 2014 played for Nike-outfitted youth teams and more than two-thirds of them wound up committing to college teams dressed in Nike gear.
All of which underscores a major reason Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank bought a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday in yet another attempt to mitigate the criticism he received after he voiced his support for President Trump’s “America First” agenda last week on CNBC. His praise for Trump, who has earned the highest disapproval rating for a new president in Gallup polling history , ignited a #BoycottUnderArmour social media protest and rebuke from Under Armour’s superstar endorsers, including ballerina Misty Copeland, action-movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and, most worrisomely for Plank’s sports apparel company, NBA MVP Steph Curry.
After all, teenaged ballplayers want to be like their professional idols. That means wearing their kicks. Colleges, which are the best billboards for gear, want to be associated with the cool factor of the hottest brands. And no brand in the past few years heated its image and inflated its bottom line more off that equation than Plank’s Under Armour.
One of the cogs in Under Armour more than doubling its revenues to become a billion-dollar corporation during the eight years President Obama was in office was its entry into the college athletic uniform market. It began outfitting Maryland, Northwestern, Navy, Texas Tech and a few others. Since then, it has flipped Notre Dame and a number of other well-known schools.
The college game got so good to Under Armour the past few years that last May it agreed to pay UCLA a record $280 million over 15 years to dress the Bruins in apparel made by Plank’s Baltimore-based manufacturer.
“Every weekend it’s on television — every Saturday in football season,” Sam Poser, an industry analyst, told the Los Angeles Times upon that deal’s announcement. “It’s expensive, but those deals really enhance the brand that’s doing the deal.”
Offending the lifeblood of that industry could be costly.
What major school going forward, save maybe Plank’s alma mater of Maryland, where he has invested heavily, would want such an association at whatever remuneration if Curry is uncomfortable with the brand because of Plank’s embrace of Trump? What if young basketball and football recruits and their parents — most of whom are people of color like Curry who find so many of the policies and officers Trump is trying to employ to be anathema — start turning away from Under Armour schools and toward schools pinned by Adidas and industry leader Nike?
What if some major schools then begin to rethink their association with Under Armour because the coaches of their revenue-generating teams start finding resistance in recruiting youngsters who look up to Curry and decide to imitate his concerns about Plank’s embrace of Trump like they do Curry’s ankle-breaking dribble?
That concern is amplified at a time when athletes, buoyed by the comfort found in the community of social media, are voicing political stances individually and collectively and sometimes acting upon them. The effects in some instances proved damaging to their targets, such as longtime Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was forced to divest his team after NBA players demanded his ouster following the revelation of bigoted pillow talk with his mistress.
Against that backdrop, it was not surprising that Plank’s full-page ad didn’t mention the new president by name or even by office. Instead, he announced in bold letters, “We are publicly opposing the travel ban,” which was Trump’s major initiative rejected by people in the streets and judges in the courts for being, in part, contrary to democracy.
While Plank found himself entangled with Trump, Nike debuted an ad campaign called “Equality” during the Grammy Awards telecast. In black-and-white footage, it features LeBron James, who famously had his teammates in Miami take a photo in hoodies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. It shows Megan Rapinoe, the soccer star who knelt during a playing of the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. It visits Dalilah Muhammad, the Muslim American who in Rio became the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles.
And the voiceover is by Michael B. Jordan, who played Oscar Grant in the film “Fruitvale Station,” which dramatized the police killing of Grant in the Bay Area. Trump ran for the White House as a law-and-order candidate, the antithesis to the #BlackLivesMatter movement born out of the epidemic of extrajudicial killing of black men such as Martin and Grant.
“On this concrete court. This patch of turf,” Jordan’s voice says. “Here, you’re defined by your actions — not your looks or beliefs. Equality should have no boundaries. . . . Opportunity should not discriminate. The ball should bounce the same for everyone. Worth should outshine color.”
Plank hasn’t gone so far as extricating himself from Trump’s informal manufacturing advisory board, something Uber CEO Travis Kalanick did from Trump’s informal economic advisory board following a torrent of criticism from customers and drivers. But Plank may have to make that his next step.
Under Armor stock already was down significantly this year, and Poser downgraded the stock to “negative,” citing “sloppy management commentary in a polarized political environment.”
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.