No one should be surprised that Nike decided to cut ties with Manny Pacquiao. The boxer's anti-homosexuality comments were both inflammatory and offensive, and with only one fight left before he rides off into retirement, there wasn't even much financial incentive for Nike to weather the storm and stick by his side.
Instead, what's notable is the way Nike released the athlete, condemning his comments and expressing its disgust as it announced the parting of ways.
"We find Manny Pacquiao's comments abhorrent," the company said in a statement announcing its decision. "Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community."
This is the same company, mind you, that stuck with Kobe Bryant despite sexual-assault charges that uncovered an affair and nearly destroyed the NBA star's reputation. Twelve years after that mess, Nike is coming out punching against Pacquiao.
And while it's true that an aging Pacquiao has nowhere near the influence that Bryant wielded in his prime, Nike's comments ultimately have little to do with the boxer. Instead, they're clearly directed at the LGBT community, as the sports apparel brand sends a clear message: We're on your side.
For sports brands like Nike and Adidas, LGBT consumers have become a critical market. And, as public sentiments trend toward a growing acceptance of LGBT individuals among the general population, there is also greater incentive for these brands to position themselves on the progressive side of the conversation. Both Nike and Adidas have taken steps to demonstrate this effort, even to the ire of a disgruntled minority.
As DigiDay pointed out just days earlier, a Valentine's Day post on Adidas' Instagram page featured pro-LGBT content that drew a backlash from anti-LGBT individuals:
Adidas has also used the gay pride rainbow in various designs in the past. It has also made it publicly known that it would not drop an endorsed athlete for coming out as gay.
Nike's blueprint is no different. It has released its own LGBT-friendly product line, the #BeTrue Collection, as part of its effort to be more inclusive.
"Nike is deeply committed to diversity, inclusion and unleashing the potential of all athletes," said Tim Hershey, vice president of global merchandising for Nike and executive advisor to Nike's LGBT Employee Network. "We're rallying the world to embrace #BETRUE as a call-to-action for all athletes to be their most authentic selves in June and all year long."
To some degree, Nike may simply be responding to growing pressures from consumers to stand up for certain values. The company has dropped several prominent athletes from endorsement deals the past few years, including NFL running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. Even beyond the LGBT issue, the company seems to pay particular attention to the athletes it chooses to align its brand with.
While both Nike and Adidas have taken strong steps forward in standing up for the LGBT community and actively targeting that consumer group, there's more the companies could do to embrace a truly progressive brand position. As Outsports points out, press releases and cut sponsorship ties may scare athletes into choosing their words more carefully, but those reputation-management measures don't necessarily advance equality within the sporting world.
"What would be more powerful, however, is for the company to actually endorse out athletes," Cyd Zeigler writes of Adidas.
Nike's quick release of Pacquiao will be met with applause. But it's hard to heap too much praise on the company for taking such an obvious step, particularly when its actions lined up perfectly with its business decisions. It's a convenient opportunity for the company to demonstrate its LGBT-friendly culture, which actually turns Pacquiao's comments into a PR opportunity for Nike -- possibly a better brand moment than anything Pacquiao was going to give them going forward.
Nike did what was necessary. When the company puts its own business interests at risk to stand a stand for equality and the LGBT community, we can stand up and applaud.
In the meantime, we can learn two things from Nike's handling of Pacquiao. First, the LGBT market is a formidable one in the retail world, and in the sports world. That's progress in its own right.
But Nike, Adidas and other companies aren't pushing that agenda forward. If they were, you'd see gay athletes on their billboards.