Friday, February 29, 2008


In the February 25th edition of Advertising Age, the editorial delved into what may arguably become the most controversial issue outside of anything related to the Presidential elections. With the next installment of the Summer Olympics taking place in Beijing these summer, Big Business has either lined up or gearing to push for sponsorship opportunities in the seventeen-day event. As the days wind down, more and more activist groups are calling for these marketers to cease their efforts, suspend their campaigns and boycott the Olympics because of numerous human-rights violations. The most notorious of these violations, in the eyes of many, has been the relationship between the Chinese and Sudanese governments as the War in Darfur rages on.

Since Beijing was awarded the 29th Olympiad in 2001, activist groups have gone on the offensive against the Chinese government in hopes of either forcing it to relent to the global pressures or possibly disrupt the Games with politically-tinged demonstrations (or the most extreme option, terrorism). The Chinese are banking on this with increased monitoring of these groups through intelligence agencies, yet that is only one battle. Some public figures, ranging from politicians to the Washington Post’s editorial board, have called for boycotts. The most damning objection thus far seems to come from famed director Steven Spielberg, who stepped down as the artistic advisor for the Games after his own efforts – with external pressures placed on him – failed to prompt President Hu Jianto to act on the matter.

Spielberg’s statement may hold tremendous weight in Hollywood as talent and executives alike may follow suit. Yet, the world public – or at least the First World public – may view the latest collective of global activism with some skepticism. So you may ask yourself; if Big Business has gone full steam ahead towards the Opening Ceremonies and the Chinese government keeping an eye on dissenters, then what about the participants themselves?

Athletes, for better or worse, have been expected to speak out on what society at-large may feel is an injustice. It’s a daily struggle as even the so-called sacred ground of the field or court houses social discourse just by a ‘harmless’ fan sign. If asked which athlete was defined by a fearlessness to discuss something beyond the game, sports fans Stateside would give you Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King or Charles Barkley. Yet, this isn’t just an American phenomenon, but an international one as well.

Case in point; while Tiger Woods has been both praised and criticized for racial neutrality (or indifference), some of soccer/football’s biggest stars have responded to sickening antics across the globe by speaking out and campaigning for unity around the pitch.

As the days draw near, the expectations will only grow. They will grow not only because nearly every nation will send their best athletes, but because nearly every nation will infuse their dollars into the Chinese economy. The expectations will grow because all of the world’s superpowers are home to the highest-profile athletes; some who will descend onto Beijing for their homelands. The expectations will grow because many of these high-profile athletes are not only the best players, but the best pitchmen of Big Business in the world.

Of all teams headed to Beijing, the USA Men’s Senior Basketball team will have the largest spotlight at the Olympics based on the American clamor for a return to dominance. They will play to represent the States, yet their occupations as NBA players overshadow their national pride. Each of the players has some endorsement deal with a major sneaker company and a handful (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade) had or have deals with consumer brands such as T-Mobile and Sprite. These deals make them some of the most recognizable faces in the world. Yet, as if they won’t face enough scrutiny by American basketball fans and media, these deals also make them targets from activist groups who will impel them to respond and act.

It wasn’t long ago – last May, in fact - when current Seattle SuperSonics forward Ira Newble was gathering signatures for an open letter he wrote to the Chinese government on behalf of pro athletes. He was a teammate of James at the time and he was able to get the signature of almost all of his teammates. Two teammates declined, James and Damon Jones. Jones has a marketing deal with a Chinese shoemaker, Li-Ning Sports Goods Co. Ltd. Though it is a Chinese company, his refusal did not lend to as much criticism as James’ as Cavaliers’ leader is the signature current player on the Nike payroll. The $90 million deal he signed shortly before joining the NBA five years ago gives him a global reach, especially with the one billion pairs of feet in China. Whether it was fear of reprisal or alleged indifference is still difficult to determine nearly a year later. However, because of Nike’s business interest in the country coupled with the NBA’s presence, LeBron, Kobe and other members of Team USA won’t stop hearing the cries to take a stand – preferably a favorable stand for the activists.

Other athletes will receive backlash for an apathetic look towards China’s politics. Those who actually respond may be revered or reviled by fans and might very well be prepared for the tidal wave to hit. Yet, outside of American basketball players, one athlete in particular will feel even more pressure.

Yao Ming.

He is the most famous Chinese athlete in the world and now the world’s largest stage has been set up in his home country. He is also part of two worlds: his native land with its own values and a foreign land with a completely different set of rules. China may be slowly reshaping itself for an open economy, but there is still tremendous resistance within its own borders. Houston isn’t exactly Shanghai. Now that Yao has found a comfort zone in the States, he will certainly find himself in an unenviable position of being the Chinese voice to dissenters. He may not be able to play for his American employer, the Rockets, for the rest of the NBA season, but he hopes to be ready for the Games. Yao’s injury timeout is necessary for his return, but it may also become an opportunity for an increase in unsolicited requests.

Officially, China wants the world to focus on the Games as opposed to their international affairs. However, their government officials cannot and will not dismiss the history of the Olympics as the lone global political arena, rather, they expect it. As calls to compel Sudan into halting their attacks grow louder, it will be hard to ignore the realities surrounding the event. Big Business, for now, will push forward as planned. Politicians, entertainers and media will do their best to make their voices heard. Yet, there is no doubt that athletes as a whole are not as willing to share their opinions publicly out of concerns of losing prestige and respect. Between today and August 8th, an athlete of great standing may break the silence.

Or not.

Say What?!?!: Some have asked about thoughts on all sorts of recent socially-charged moments revolving around sports from the impending investigation regarding Roger Clemens to Kelly Tilghman's comment a short time ago (which only needed this Say What response). Scribe does share opinions on many sports topics, but not delving much on these weighty issues has a simple reason: there are many who articulate their thoughts on those matters and some who are quite masterful at it. There is, however, a desire to hear from those who are ardent fans and folks who marvel at our sports obesssions from afar. Just as every other post on this blog, your comments are always welcome, but in this particular post, your comments, questions and discussions amongst each other are highly recommended. Some of you have a particular insight on the War in Darfur that isn't reflected here and some have intimate knowledge - or at least awareness - of the vast differences between Chinese and American culture. Please forward this entry along to anyone with a particular interest (sports, business, politics, etc.).

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