Fraser P. Seitel
Fraser Seitel

Years ago, The New York Times used to include something called a “Sports Section,” which reported on such newsworthy topics as basketball, baseball and football, often including high points from college and professional games. Its sports commentary—authored by such legendary journalists as Red Smith, Dave Anderson, George Vecsey and Harvey Araton—was often inspiring reading.

Today, of course, the new, improved, more woke–woker?–Times still claims to carry a “Sports Section,” but it really doesn’t. Gone are the daily reports on collegiate or professional sports, with the notable exception of the best American coverage of the ever-popular Italian and British soccer leagues.

Mostly, what passes as “sports” in the Times these days are columns by writers like Kurt Streeter, whose beat the paper tells us covers “the connection between sports and broader society, especially regarding issues of race, gender and social justice.” Accordingly, Mr. Streeter’s columns have discussed sports topics like:

  • Why Major League Baseball’s commissioner should be called out for allowing Atlanta Braves fans to do the racist “tomahawk chop” during games.
  • Why the National Football League commissioner should be called out for allowing racist tweets by fired Las Vegas Raiders’ coach Jon Gruden.
  • Why the International Olympic Committee should be called out for its racist suspension of U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who violated IOC rules prohibiting marijuana use.
  • Why the affluent Seattle neighborhood in which Mr. Streeter’s family has lived for six decades should be called out for the “pain and disappointment” of the latent racism he still feels on his daily jog.

Last week, in the wake of the Biden administration’s announcement that it wouldn’t send officials to the China Olympics, Mr. Streeter turned his critical eye to companies—such as Coca-Cola and Visa—that will be sponsoring the Olympics. Coke and its corporate cohorts should be called out, he argued, for supporting a country where human rights atrocities include mistreating Muslim minorities.

“Instead of using their significant clout to speak boldly for human rights in China—or even stronger, speaking boldly and pulling up stakes entirely,” Mr. Streeter implored, “the corporate sponsors that underwrite the games and use the Olympics as a marketing tool are putting profits over morality.”

Presumably, many public relations professionals agree with Mr. Streeter. Why shouldn’t Coca-Cola and the other corporate sponsors boycott the China Olympics?

Here’s why.

Corporate “profits” benefit lots of people in lots of places.

Coca-Cola is in business to sell what was once called “soda pop” and now includes juices, teas and flavored waters. That’s what it does and what it should focus on.

Coke and its independent bottling partners employ 700,000 people, operating in more than 200 countries. All those people in all those countries depend on Coca-Cola to make a profit. When Coke sponsors global events like the Olympics, it makes more money, and some portion of that money finds its way into the pockets of those 700,000 people who use it to feed and clothe and house their families.

So, the greater the profits of Coca-Cola, the better the outcome for hundreds of thousands of families around the world. That’s the bottom line and a detail to which, alas, anti-corporate zealots, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Occasio-Cortez and apparently Mr. Streeter, either are oblivious or unwilling to recognize.

Without sponsors, Olympic participants would enjoy little recognition.

Celebrity Olympians, like gymnast Simone Biles or swimmer Michael Phelps, are clearly outliers.

Most Olympians, who spend their entire lives training for such events as weightlifting, water polo, table tennis and curling, toil in obscurity. They scrimp and save to fulfill their passion, longing for the moment when they can compete on the world stage once every four years.

Their ability to take that world stage and be seen and recognized and perhaps even attain fame and fortune is a direct result of the willingness of corporations to spend millions of dollars to sponsor the Olympics around the world.

Even Mr. Streeter, in his screed on callous corporate sponsors, allowed as to how the dismal human rights record of this year’s host country has created “an unfair position for the Olympics’ labor force, most of whom toil away for years in obscure sports that barely pay the bills.”

Of course, he then fails to make the connection between the sponsors’ support and the potential realization of the Olympians’ dreams of achievement.

Corporate “morality” is essential, but every corporation must determine for itself how that morality should be manifest.

In a society where belief in “capitalism” has diminished, particularly in the eyes of younger people, it’s more urgent than ever that companies live by the mantra of “doing the right thing.”

But that doesn’t mean every corporation must become a Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s that embraces every environmental or social justice cause no matter how controversial or obscure. The publics of many public companies are hugely diverse in political and social preferences; and so before taking a public stand on a particular issue, a business must first consider the risks in terms of alienating a key constituency on whom it depends for support or income.

Coca-Cola is a good example. Last spring, when the Georgia legislature adopted a stricter voting law, Atlanta-based Coke went public to condemn it. Predictably, the company’s declaration was lauded by some, criticized by others. But Coke made a tough choice to support its many local employees who felt strongly about the law.

Supporting the Olympics is a separate judgment. Said Paul Lalli, Coke’s global vice president for human affairs, “We do not make decisions on these host locations. We support and follow the athletes wherever they compete.”

There are many ways for companies to exhibit their moral indignation.

Finally, just because a company supports the Olympics doesn’t mean it can’t also support organizations opposed to human rights abuses.

The list of U.S. corporations supporting human rights for women, people of color, people of all faiths, etc. is limitless. For example, the Business Coalition for the Equality Act, which would expressly protect LGBTQ people, numbers 400 companies, the largest coalition of business firms ever to support the LGBTQ community.

The fact is, a large company today would be stupid not to take advantage of any opportunity to reinforce its respect of and support for human rights.

Coca-Cola has donated more than $1 billion “creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion” in the communities in which it operates. But in repressive nations like China, where Coke and other large firms (including Patagonia) have plants suspected of ties to forced labor of Muslim minorities, balancing profit and morality is complicated.

Responding to such allegations in its China operation, Coke says it “strictly prohibits any type of forced labor in our supply chain” and uses third-party auditors to closely monitor its suppliers. In the case of its suspect Chinese operation, Coke says, it “successfully completed an audit in 2019.”

That’s clearly not nearly enough to appease its critics. It’s a lot easier to bellow “boycott!” when you bear no responsibility for people’s lives or livelihoods.

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Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation” and “Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at yusake@aol.com.