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Brand Responsibility Perspectives: When Athletes Protest, Endorsers Should Listen

brand endorsements, brand responsibility, CenturyLink, Hofstra University, Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, Marketing, NFL player protests, NFL protesters, Pr, Public relations, Victoria Geyer SempleBy Victoria Geyer Semple, Associate Professor, Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations, Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, Hofstra University

When Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers decided to kneel down during the national anthem, in protest of policing practices affecting minority communities, he was aware that his silent protest may result in loss of corporate endorsements. Yet, companies continue to endorse and support Kaepernick’s silent protest and voice in this racial-equality movement. Kaepernick has become a sports-leader and face of a silent-protest movement across America, with fellow athletes using their stature and fame to bring attention to this civil rights movement by kneeling during the national anthem.

For Denver Bronco Wide Receiver, Brandon Marshall his silent protest was not greeted with the same fate as Kaepernick. Marshall lost endorsement deals from both Air Academy Federal Credit Union and CenturyLink. Thus far, these are the only two companies that have pulled endorsement deals from an athlete who silently protested during the national anthem. These terminated  endorsements suggest much more to many Americans, than CenturyLink’s statement on the issue,

“We completely respect Brandon Marshall’s personal decision and right to take an action to support something in which he strongly believes. America is anchored in the right of individuals to express their beliefs. While we acknowledge Brandon’s right, we also believe that whatever issues we face, we also occasionally must stand together to show our allegiance to our common bond as a nation. In our view, the national anthem is one of those moments. For this reason, while we wish Brandon the best this season, we are politely terminating our agreement with him.”

For many Americans, they view CenturyLink as a company speaking out both sides of their mouth; on one side they are suggesting they value America’s right to express one’s belief, yet they cannot support an individual’s belief if it is not in allegiance to a common bond. Herein lies the problem; Marshall, Kaepernick and many other athletes are protesting the national anthem to demonstrate the lack of common bond with how people of color are policed and how Whites are policed in this nation. Today’s athletes are practicing their right to bring attention to a civil rights issue. CenturyLink’s statement and action suggest to many that the practice of not standing for the national anthem is more important than lives lost in communities of color.

This movement will only continue to grow and as with any civil rights movement, in time, this movement will affect change in the country. Companies need to listen to their publics and support those that they turned to for influence, even if they are concerned that these influencers may upset some of their target public. By terminating an endorsement, due to an action that an influencer is trying to address in a peaceful protest, suggests lack of care, or interest to many Americans who support the rights of all Americans.

It is time for companies to look at the larger American picture and ignore knee-jerk reactions that often follow an action that may be new, different, or even a little uncomfortable. Instead, companies should lead and take the time to think about their role as a corporate citizen standing up for civil rights and supporting voices that question policy affecting all communities to which they serve. Today, companies need to listen to all voices, welcome diversity and support all voices, especially during times of change or unrest. History proves, that with time social movements affect change, and wouldn’t most companies want to be on the right side of that change?

Victoria Semple is an associate professor in the department of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations at Hofstra University.

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