Authors note: This article touches on many topics which can be considered controversial. The point of this article is NOT to take any sides on topics, but rather it is to generate discussion on how sports teams should address these topics, if at all. As a father of an 8 year old son, I have to take many of these controversial situations under consideration before taking him to a game and that was the main reason I came up with this article idea. Kindness, respect and courtesy are expected in the comments section. Don't stoop to the comment quality levels found on Facebook and political articles. You're better than that.
Go to any social media or news site and you'll easily find a controversial topic. I'm not talking about whoever is trashing Taylor Swift this week, I'm not even talking about whether or not Pokemon Go should be for adults or kids; you know the topics I'm talking about: Dallas, Orlando, Black Lives Matter, President Trump, etc. Lady Gaga performed for over 100 million viewers world-wide at Super Bowl 51 (right here in our amazing city of Houston) and most were just waiting for something controversial to happen. In the end, she made subtle statements which would be noticed by those more involved in some of the current issues but she avoided the blatant, in-your-face messages which everyone expected to happen.
All of these topics, and many others, draw very distinctive lines in the sand between various groups of people. Stuck in the middle are sports teams trying to draw fans to their stadiums and keep the revenue streams going during a rough economic period. Teams must choose to ignore a topic or pick a side and risk alienating part of their fan base.
Teams take a risk
This past July 20th our Houston Dynamo hosted Dallas FC in a quarter-final matchup for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Fans were encouraged ahead of time to bring donations for the Line of Duty fund "which benefits the families of the Dallas Police Department and DART transit officers who were killed in the line of duty on Thursday, July 7". Officers from the Houston and Dallas Police Departments helped lead players from both teams onto the field and were part of a special "Stand with Dallas" picture which the crowd supported with a standing ovation which lasted longer than most expected.
While this show of support by the Dynamo appeared to be widely accepted and appreciated, should they have taken the risk to do so? In some parts of our country there would have been protests, potentially violent protests, in response to this show of support for Police Officers. One has to wonder if the situation were different, would the scene outside the stadium have been different? If the game were in Dallas, or on a weekend, or if the show of support was held by a more popular sports team in Houston, what would have happened? 10 years ago a show of support for police, firefighters, etc. would easily be held in high regard with very little backlash. Today though, it was a risk the Dynamo organization decided to take. As my son and I walked to the stadium I'll admit, I was watching more for potential issues around the stadium than I normally would. There is a chance a few fans came out because of the Dynamo's support for the DPD but there is also a chance some decided not to go for the very same reason.
On June 12th, a 29 year-old male walked into an Orlando nightclub and killed 49 people while wounding 53 others. The Dynamo game on June 18th (Star Wars Night) held a moment of silence for the victims of this horrible event. The days and weeks after that horrible night two main controversies strung out numerous heated discussions across the internet: gun control and LGBT issues. To a lesser extent, immigration and religious freedoms also again became hot topics to debate in all caps with 12 year olds posing as 48 year olds on random message boards.
The Dynamo kept it safe, had the moment of silence, and played a video which was provided by MLS which also appeared to be a safe video which wouldn't stir too much controversy (I was explaining to my son in broad terms what was going on and what happened so I didn't catch the entire video). The Houston Dash, however, decided to make a much bigger splash.
On July 16th the Dash played against the Orlando Pride in BBVA Compass Stadium. The Houston organization decided to show their support in a big way during "Pride Night", including an online auction and special t-shirts with "Dash On" in team colors in a rainbow-like appearance. The money raised by the auction, T-Shirts and limited-edition scarves went towards the OneOrlando fund benefiting the victims and their families of this horrendous attack.
Again we find a sports franchise choosing to showcase a controversial topic as part of one of their games. Again fans would have to consider potential protesters outside of the stadium in addition to discussions they might not be ready to address with their children.
The event came and went, the Dash raised about $6,000 for OneOrlando and nothing was reported online to hint at any type of major negative response. Again we have to ask ourselves though, did this themed event increase or hurt the Dash's support for this or future games? Could the Dash have given a cash donation instead of risking alienating a segment of fans? Did they gain new fans because of this show of support?
Leagues have also taken the jump
Individual teams aren't the only ones touching on controversial topics. Recently CrossFit announced winners of their annual CrossFit Games will receive Glock handguns as one of their prizes. Needless to say, this decision has raised a few eyebrows and stirred up plenty of controversy. Add in the official name of the event is the "Reebok CrossFit Games" and instantly groups against this decision have two easy targets to boycott, protest and bad mouth on twitter. Locally this decision might not have been as big of a deal if you go by the popularity of JJ Watt's new shoes...but nationally and internationally this has become a big story.
Again, will this decision by CrossFit lead to a reduction in members, or backlash from advertisers or box franchise owners? Are the potential benefits worth the risk? One can also move the spotlight from CrossFit and Reebok over to Glock. In a time where gun manufacturers are fighting legal battles of their own on a regular basis, is it really worth it for them to be at the center of controversy they directly had a hand in causing?
This one is still on going so it will be interesting to see how it plays out for all parties involved.
When the league won't, the players will. Even if it costs them.
There have been times where a league will not take an official stance on a controversy and players make the decision to go public with their own opinions. Some can be over the top and easily regarded as poor taste, such as running back Isaiah Crowell of the Cleveland Browns posting a picture (drawing, not a photograph) online of a police officer's throat being cut. He was quickly met with anger and disgust leading to an apology from the player.
Others, however, have taken a different path which have resulted in fines from their respective leagues and stirred up debate online. Recently players on three WNBA teams were fined for wearing #BlackLivesMatter warm up shirts. A few days later, after some pressure, the league rescinded the fines and stated they'll work with the players and Union on solutions. A similar situation happened in the NBA two years ago when LeBron James wore an "I can't breathe" t-shirt during his warm ups however LeBron wasn't fined for his actions. While the NBA's reaction resulted in more discussion about the topic, the WNBA's response as well as the player's actions have had bigger reactions. Four players from the Lynx WNBA team wore similar Black Lives Matter shirts and in response four off-duty police officers walked out on their security jobs they held with the WNBA. Rumors are swirling more officers will follow suit. Not only does this situation reduce the safety of the players, it now affects the fans in that stadium as well.
In recent history most of these situations have had little direct impact to a team or league's bottom line. In fact the only time we see an obvious negative cash flow is when players or teams are fined by their respective leagues. That said, personally I've chosen to not spend money on a team or event due to various controversies that either I personally didn't agree with or I didn't think my son was old enough to be confronted by.
How about you? Has a specific cause or stance by a league, team or player caused you to change your support? Remember, please, let's keep this at the level of "should leagues/teams/players publicly take a side on controversial topics" and NOT at "teams should never ever support pink unicorns" levels. Sound off on the poll below and feel free to add some commentary in the comments section.