Athletic Sponsorships and Social Responsibility
By: Luke Pacifici
Antoine Griezmann is a professional soccer player who starts at forward on F.C. Barcelona and on the French national team. Although the World Cup winner is perhaps most renowned for his goal celebrations, his name recently popped up in the news for something almost completely unrelated. In early December of 2020, Griezmann shared on Instagram that he would no longer be serving as a global brand ambassador for Huawei, a Chinese global information and communications technology (ICT) company, due to allegations around a new facial recognition software tested by the company. With his actions, Griezmann has extended the recent global discussions around social issues to include brand endorsements and sponsorships.
In 2017, Griezmann agreed to serve as a global brand ambassador for Huawei. Three years later, allegations surfaced that Huawei contributed to the development of facial recognition software designed to identify certain ethnic groups. Specifically, this software has helped create an alert so that Chinese authorities would be notified when a Muslim group called the Uighurs are detected. The “Uighur Alert” supposedly would help Chinese authorities keep surveillance on and suppress the Muslim minority. In response to the allegations, Huawei has stated that “[their] technologies are not designed to identify ethnic groups [and] non-discrimination is at the heart of [their] values as a company.”
As news of Huawei’s dealings surfaced around the world, Griezmann immediately ended the partnership. He invited “Huawei to not just deny these accusations, but to take concrete actions as quickly as possible to condemn this mass repression, and to use its influence to contribute to the respect of human and women’s rights in society.”
Griezmann’s statements are not novel, particularly in the world of soccer. Earlier in 2020, Arsenal soccer player Mesut Özil posted on Instagram about the Uighurs. Calling them “warriors who resist persecution,” Özil posted after allegations arose that the Chinese Government had been involved in wrongfully detaining the Uighurs and taking draconian measures to slash birth rates to curb the Muslim population in China. The Chinese Government answered by pulling an Arsenal match from state television schedules and removing Özil from a Chinese version of the Pro Evolution Soccer video game. As a result, Arsenal was forced to issue a statement that unaligned the team from Özil’s “personal views.”
By publicly rebuking a sponsoring company, Griezmann has shed light on a path which encourages athletes to double check all facets of a company and its products before and during any sponsorship relationship. Griezmann advocates for an unwritten rule that sponsorships should be about more than money. Even though an athlete may not agree with a product, a company, or a company’s actions, the athlete may hurt their own image by continuing to represent the business. To protect against any adverse reputational effects of a company’s or athlete’s misconduct, “morals clauses” are often included in endorsement contracts. Morals clauses allow one party to safely exit a contract if the other party is suspected to have engaged in moral misconduct.
It is unknown if “disciplinary” measures have been taken by Huawei or the Chinese Government towards Griezmann or F.C. Barcelona, but Griezmann likely knew that he risked more than just money by discontinuing his partnership. Through his actions, Griezmann shows that athletes can and should make the socially responsible choice, regardless of money, when it comes to the affairs of their sponsoring companies.
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