When the English Premier League resumed last month after a three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all players had “Black Lives Matter” inscriptions on the back of their shirts instead of the traditional names in the opening round of games.
They have continued to take a knee before kick-off in what has become a global symbol of tribute to slain George Floyd.
The Premier League and the Football Association (FA) prohibit participants in the game from making political statements, with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola fined two years ago by the latter for wearing a ribbon in support of Catalan independence, Arsenal distanced themselves from Mesut Ozil’s support for the Uighur Muslim population in China.
Have they made an exception?
Is it because of the 500 players in the Premier League, a third of them are black?
But is there black representation in the hierarchy or in the coaching staff?
There are currently only six black head coaches in the top 92 clubs in the English Professional Leagues.
Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling has called on the English football to seize the moment and finally address its lack of black representation in positions of power.
“We have no representation of us in the hierarchy and no representation of us in the coaching staff,” says Sterling on BBC Newsnight.
“We have done a lot of talking and it is time to implement change.”
The 25-year-old referred to Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard being in high positions while other former English stars like Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole have struggled to get such jobs.
It is true that the Premiership League’s move has not come with specific promises for reforms.
Black Lives Matter a marketing coy?
As protests against racism and police brutality have erupted across the United States and the world, many companies have sought to capitalise on the moment by pledging solidarity with the protesters and speaking out against systemic racism.
But some of the famous brands are being accused of hypocrisy: are they genuinely involved in the anti-racism cause, or they are just trying to raise their profiles?
Microsoft has posted quotes on Twitter from black employees describing how systemic racism takes a toll on their lives.
“It should not take the death of Black people at this magnitude to inspire everyone to be an ally,” Microsoft quoted its employee Phil Terrill as saying.
And yet only 4,4 percent of Microsoft’s global workforce across all brands– including retail and warehouse workers– identify as black.
Less than three percent of its US executives, directors and managers are black, according to the company’s 2019 diversity and inclusion report.
Online retail giant Amazon is prominently displaying a post entitled “Black lives matter” on its homepage.
But Amazon has its own share of iniquities.
An AP analysis published recently found that more than 60 percent of Amazon warehouse and delivery workers in most cities are black people.
Amazon’s own 2019 workforce data show that only eight percent of its managers in the United States are black compared to the nearly 60 percent of managers who are white.
Whereas Adidas, which responded to protests by displaying the capitalised word “RACISM” with a red line through it on its Instagram account, acknowledged its own shortcomings after a growing group of employees called out the company for its lack of diversity.
Adidas unveiled several moves to fight racial inequality last month including a pledge to fill at least 30 percent of all new US positions at Adidas and Reebok with black and Latino people.
“The events of the past weeks have caused all of us to reflect on what we can do to confront the cultural and systemic forces that sustain racism,” Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted said in a statement.
“We have had to look inward to ourselves as individuals and our organisation and reflect on systems that disadvantage and silence black individuals and communities.”
However, the Germany-based company didn’t provide a breakdown on the race or ethnicity of its workforce.
Nike which has long been viewed as an “insider” brand among black consumers because of its lucrative and high-profile sponsorship deals with prominent African-American athletes took on the racial injustice issue head-on with its ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked controversy in 2016 by kneeling during the US National Anthem to protest the violent treatment of black people.
The Portland, Oregon-area company revealed a new video advertisement in response to the protests that bore the words: “For once, don’t do it.” The ad, a twist on its long-time “Just do it” motto, urged viewers not to “pretend there’s not a problem in America.”
Yet a look at who is leading the firm’s corporate business shows a disconnect between what the brand projects and how it operates.
Several of the businesses have had complicated relationships with race in past.
Thus one would ask is this “black lives matter” a marketing strategy?
Are these companies just protecting their commercial base?
Is there a business decision behind each message weighing the costs and benefits to the bottom line?
Royalties for I can’t Breathe?
A white businessman Georgios Demetriou from Manchester, is attempting to trademark the phrases ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’
Demetriou is the founder of License to Thrill, which has operated the online bicycle store Ridelow in Manchester since May 2000.
Both applications are for clothing while the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ trademark is also intended for charity wristbands.
He claims that the trademarks will be for ‘charitable work’, though he has been accused of attempting to exploit the BLM movement after admitting he will charge others royalty fees if people use either phrase.
Beware of brand activism
A 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study showed that 64 percent of consumers would reward firms which they see as engaged in some kind of activism.
“So it is no surprise that we saw so many companies going public in the aftermath of what happened to George Floyd,” Pepper Miller, a Chicago-based diversity consultant, told the BBC.
“The response on the street has been substantial internationally too – there were even protests in Finland. “It is difficult for companies to ignore that.”
While some messages have been welcomed, others have consumers questioning their hypocrisy.
For instance, Australian fashion label Zimmerman expressed solidarity with the movement but was consequently accused of racial discrimination by two former interns.
This was followed by a leaked internal document that outlined very Euro-centric presentation policies for retail staff, banning top knots and braids for hair.
In response, Zimmerman pledged to donate to NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Aboriginal Legal Service in Australia as well as founded a Diversity and Inclusion leadership group in their company.
L’Oreal Paris was also slammed for pledging support to Black Lives Matter after firing model Munroe Bergdorf in 2017 for speaking about racism online.
In response L’Oreal Paris appointed Munro Bergdorf onto their new diversity board.
YouTube announced a US$1 million donation to the Center for Policing Equity, to demonstrate “solidarity against racism and violence,” yet received backlash at the trivial size of the investment to its annual revenue (US$15.1 billion in 2019), with criticism that the platform’s algorithm encourages racial bias and extremism.
Some had not read the signs, like coffee-chain Starbuck when earlier in June it banned employees from wearing Black Lives Matter T shirts, pins and accessories.
But the brand quickly reversed the decision after an online outcry, manifested in a viral #BoycottStarbucks hashtag, and actually introduced its own Black Lives Matter apparel as an olive branch.
For many this is just business.
By Patience Rusare
The author writes for The Patriot