When it comes to corporate social responsibility, it’s hard to beat the wide variety of community programs and national initiatives that have been undertaken by professional sports in the U.S. It’s a tradition that goes back through many decades, and one that has included many different stakeholders, including the federal government. For that reason, it was quite surprising to learn that two leading Senators felt compelled to send a stern letter to the nation’s six top professional sports leagues last week, warning them not to lend their CSR experience to help publicize an important national health care initiative that has already affected millions of Americans.
That would be the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, more familiarly known as Obamacare.
The letter was sent by Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and John Cornyn (R-TX) to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the Professional Golf Association (why not the U.S. Golf Association we wonder?) and NASCAR.
It warns that the new law is the “most divisive and polarizing political issue of our day.” It further warns that “given the divisiveness and persistent unpopularity of the health care [law], it is difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion.”
Readers, if any of you can recall an instance in which members of Congress have warned a professional sports league, or any other major U.S. corporation for that matter, that their CSR profile could be headed in a brand-damaging direction, please drop us a note in the comment thread. In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of those other divisive and polarizing political issues out there, and see how our professional sports leaders have handled them.
LGBT rights and the National Hockey League
McConnell and Cornyn wrote that “it is difficult for us to remember another occasion when [a] major sports league took public sides in such a highly polarized public debate.”
To that we say: You Can Play! Just this past April the National Hockey League, with much fanfare, launched a “historic partnership” with the LGBT advocacy organization You Can Play Project, with the aim of integrating inclusiveness into the NHL’s DNA.
Well, we know with those busy Senators it’s difficult to remember things that happened a couple of months ago, but there you have it. Especially given the uproar among conservatives surrounding last week’s Supreme Court decisions in support of LGBT rights, it’s difficult to think of a more polarizing and divisive issue on the plate today, but the NHL certainly had no problem tackling it head on.
We also don’t recall any Senator firing off any letter warning of brand damage to the NHL back in April. If they had, they would have looked pretty foolish: the season ended on a high note with great ratings for the Stanley Cup Series.
Government laws and pro sports CSR
You could try to make the case that Obamacare is different from other CSR issues because it involves a law, not a non-government program or initiative. However, there is a precedent: the 2007 partnership between the Boston Red Sox and the government of Massachusetts in support of the “Romneycare” health care reform law, which was one of then-governor Mitt Romney’s signature accomplishments.
Red Sox fans, if you recall that any U.S. Senators were concerned enough to send a letter to the franchise back then, let us know.
Given that memory seems to be an issue here, we’re taking a bit of a risk by going back any farther, but it’s also worth noting that in 1998, the National Transportation and Highway Safety Administration teamed up with NASCAR in a five-year partnership to remind drivers about mandatory state seat belt requirements, among other safety issues.
Mandatory seat belt use is pretty much part of the civc landscape now, but when states began introducing seat belt laws in the 1980s they were controversial and enforcement issues can still raise hackles.
As a side note, McConnell and Cornyn do acknowledge the Red Sox partnership in their letter, but only to the extent of arguing that Obamacare is suspect because it passed along party lines whereas Romneycare had bipartisan support.
Forensics fans, if you can provide us with some insights as to how that point about partisan vs. bipartisan advances the main thrust of the letter, please drop us a comment. To our mind, the partisanship issue is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a cogent argument about the risk of brand damage, but maybe that’s just us.
Vaccines and U.S. pro sports leagues
For that matter, between conspiracy theorists and conservative critics, even non-controversial health care topics like vaccinations have become political hot potatoes in recent years.
Nevertheless, last year the National Football League supported the Centers for Disease Control’s seasonal flu vaccine initiative, National Influenza Vaccination Week, and the National Basketball Association still partners in the Vaccines for Teens initiative.
Vaccines for Teens, which of course references CDC recommendations, focuses its efforts on preventing meningitis, pertussis (aka whooping cough), flu and the sexually transmitted disease HPV, which has been linked to cervical cancer.
In the field of vaccines, it’s difficult to think of a more divisive and polarizing issue than the HPV vaccine, considering that CDC has recommended it for girls as young as 11 or 12, but to our knowledge Senators McConnell and Cornyn have not seen fit to warn the NBA of this dire threat to its brand.
Business partnerships and federal initiatives
Like any other business, pro sports frequently partners with federal agencies when and where it advances their bottom line, enhances their CSR profile, or enables them to prepare compliance strategies. One such example is the US Golf Association, which has established sustainability principles for golf course management in partnership with the U.S. EPA and many other stakeholders (not sure why McConnell and Cornyn wrote to the PGA and not USGA, but whatever).
None of this should be controversial, but given the ire directed at anything connected to the Obama Administration by conservative pundits, it’s still a bit of a risk.
Nevertheless in 2011, Major League Baseball joined its Welcome Back Veterans program with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Joining Forces Initiative for veterans and their families, and last year it teamed with the First Lady again to promote her Let’s Move family nutrition campaign.
Looking at the bigger picture, a growing number of the nation’s premier corporate citizens have partnered with the Obama Administration on climate change-related initiatives since 2008, a few examples being Clean Fleets (FedEx and Verizon among many others), Better Buildings Challenge (Starbucks and Staples among many others), and most recently, the Food Waste Challenge (kicked off by General Mills and Unilever).
Given that President Obama pledged a whole new set of administrative actions in his major climate change speech last week, you’d expect at least a warning phone call to some of those companies from Senators McConnell and Cornyn, or at least maybe a text or an Instagram, but so far, not a peep.
[Image: U.S. Capitol by Kevin Burkett]