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The NBA and NFL offer opposite versions of American brand image

In one day, the two sports leagues illustrated their contrasting brand images by embodying the ongoing debate around police brutality, patriotism, and protest.

The NBA and NFL offer opposite versions of American brand image
[Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images; Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images]

This week we got a powerful snapshot of two very different versions of what patriotism is, and in a way, America’s own brand image, from two unlikely sources.

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On Wednesday, the NFL owners announced a new policy that players who choose to kneel during the national anthem risk punishment or their teams facing possible financial penalties. The league did suggest players who want to protest simply do it behind closed doors in the locker room, instead of out on the field, in front of all those pesky cameras. President Trump supported the new policy, telling Fox & Friends that players who choose to kneel or stay in the locker room maybe “shouldn’t be in the country.”

Later that same day, the Milwaukee Bucks issued a statement regarding a just-released video of its rookie point guard Sterling Brown being violently arrested with a stun gun by four Milwaukee police officers back in January. The NBA team said the “abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police was shameful and inexcusable… We are grateful for the service of many good police officers that courageously protect us, our fans and our city, but racial biases and abuses of power must not be ignored.”

One issue, two major sports organizations and brands, two distinctly different approaches. The NFL continues to conflate players’ kneeling protest with a lack of patriotism or respect for America. The Bucks, and the NBA through its support of players’ right to protest, see the issue of police brutality as it is, an affront to the true nature of American ideals.  As messages of support and solidarity flooded in for the Bucks, the response to the NFL’s new policy was more complicated, denounced by many, including current players. The contrast in brand image here between the two leagues is striking.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr outlined the differences between the NBA and NFL in pretty stark terms:

“I think it’s just typical of the NFL. They’re just playing to their fan base and basically trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people. It’s idiotic, but that’s how the NFL has handled their business. I’m proud to be in a league that understands that patriotism in America is about free speech and about peaceful protesting.”

Twitter bickering aside, from a brand strength point of view it’s not difficult to see the gulf between them, and ultimately those who support either side. One remains mired in the petty gestures and status quo of the past, while the other is open-minded, eyes toward the future. I know which one I’d put my money on long-term.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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