Athletes and artists are using their influence to “Quarterback”​ big social issues

Back on May 30th, I had the opportunity to attend “Athletes + Activisim,” an event hosted by The Atlantic, and MC’d by Jemele Hill. The event explored the question, “How can athletes succeed as advocates for social change?”

A particular highlight was an interview with John Carlos—the 1968 Olympic Bronze Medalist who famously protested on the podium during the Mexico City Games with fellow American athlete, Tommie Smith.

Carlos reflected on this moment and what went into his decision to protest racial discrimination and injustice in the U.S. on the global scale.

John Carlos (R) with Tommie Smith (C) during the Men’s 200M medal presentation at Estadio Olimpico during the Mexico City 1968 Summer Olympic Games. The two men went shoeless and each wore a black glove on a raised fist to call for racial equality in USA. The silver medalist is Australia’s Peter Norman (L). Credit: AP/Neil Leifer

“They might take my life, but they can never take this demonstration away. I felt that was more important than my life because when I came to the Games, I didn’t go to the games to make a statement for John Carlos. I went to make a statement for my kids and their peers. For your kids. And that statement still registers 51 years later.”

“So, it was necessary to make a universal statement for people to open their minds begin to challenge themselves in terms of what type of individual whatever human being I am. Because I can’t change it by merely putting my fist to the sky. We as a society have to change the ills of society,” Carlos said.

Carlos and Smith’s protest in 1968 is one of many examples of how professional athletes have leveraged their platform and influence to stand for something—to move society forward on an issue that is holding us back from being more peaceful, equitable and just.

From Jackie Robinson, to Althea Gibson, to Muhammad Ali, to Billie Jean King—there is a long history of courageous individuals using their influence as pro athletes to support and lead social issues. As you look around today, you see evidence that more and more pro athletes doing incredible work to make a positive impact on the world.

I believe that going forward into the 2020s, we will see more activist athletes, musicians, actors, and entertainers. These folks will lead, or “Quarterback” if you will, on issues that are important to them, and use their financial resources and cultural influence to get companies and fans behind their cause.

There are already numerous examples of talent in the sports and entertainment industry leading on important social issues. Let’s explore two at the forefront.

Stephen Curry—Impact Investor

Stephen Curry is a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, and three-time NBA Champion with the NBA Golden State Warriors. But one of the more impressive parts of his resume off the court is his impact investing background.

SC30’s founders Steph Curry (L) and Bryant Barr Credit: SC30

In a recent piece in Forbes, Patrick Murray details Curry and business partner Bryant Barr‘s investment strategy through their venture, SC30 Investments, Inc.

Barr told Forbes that the entire focus of SC30, Inc’s investment strategy is “not just to make money so you can sit on it and have nice things and continue to build wealth, but what could you do with that wealth that drives an impact in a really material way?”

Barr and Curry have implemented this mindset through their most recent investment in Guild Education, “a venture-backed tech company that partners with businesses, colleges, and students to offer ‘education as benefit’ and help more people go back to college.”

The key for Steph Curry is that his investment into companies such as Guild aligns closely with the philanthropic work he does through the Eat. Play. Learn. Foundation he founded with his wife, Ayesha, over the summer.

“I don’t think social impact investing needs to just be completely philanthropic in nature,” Barr said. “Guild is a fantastic business. They’re crushing it right now. We’re very excited about what the future holds for them. We believe it’s going to be a great investment for our overall portfolio.”

It’s early on their impact investing journey, but Barr says that he and Curry hope to continue to learn and grow their abilities as investors who produce great financial and social returns.

“I’d be lying if I told you that we had all the answers and it’s crystal clear on our end. But the north star for us is to be purpose-driven and to align purpose with profit,” Barr explained.

Meek Mill—Criminal Justice Reform Leader

Philadelphia-born hip-hop artist, songwriter and entrepreneur, Meek Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, has become a public face for criminal justice reform in the U.S.

When he was 19 years old, Meek was wrongfully arrested on gun and drug charges in his hometown. The arresting officer was the lone testifying witness at his trial, and he received a sentence of 11-23 months in prison with eight years of probation.

Despite never committing a crime as a probationer, Meek was sentenced to two-to-four-year prison sentence for technical probation violations in Nov 2017, which spurred the international #FreeMeek campaign and ultimately resulted in his release on bail in Apr 2018.

After his release, the artist convened some of his friends—including entrepreneur and NBA Philadelphia 76ers co-owner, Michael Rubin—to launch Justice Reform Alliance or REFORM.

REFORM seeks to “move one million men and women out of the criminal justice system over the next five years by changing the laws, policies and practices that contribute to mass incarceration” according to the organization’s website.

Meek Mill (R) with Jay-Z Credit: Shareif Ziyadat

Meek and Rubin brought on additional partners to add further fuel to the fire including Roc Nation‘s Jay-Z, NFL New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, and CNN contributor, Van Jones.

“I got caught up in the system and every time I started to further my life with the music industry … every year or two it was something that brought me back to ground zero, and it was probation,” Mill said at a press conference announcing REFORM in April this year.

Sports, entertainment and business leaders have pledged $50 million to power Meek Mill’s movement.

Their fight will be long and hard, but Meek Mill knows his story is powerful and he’s using his influence to fight a broken, unjust system in our country.

With all of the major social and environmental issues we face in this world, we need people of influence to step up. Folks who have significant cultural influence like Stephen Curry and Meek Mill are already taking action and more will follow suit.

For the broader business community the question becomes, how do we support them? How do we throw our weight around, contribute our resources to these important causes?

1) Build marketing deals with intention – Curry’s recent deal with Callaway Golf provides a great example of intentionally building an endorsement deal to reinforce an athlete’s social mission.

When the deal was announced, both sides stated that the partnership would be aimed at making golf “more accessible to underserved and underrepresented youth.” This came only a few weeks after Curry made a philanthropic pledge to Howard University to launch a Division I Golf program at the school.

Intention is important in order to execute purpose-driven marketing deals effectively. By stating upfront that they intend to invest in making participation in the game of golf more diverse, Callaway and Curry signal that their partnership is about more than selling more golf equipment.

2) Align with your key stakeholders – While it might be tempting for brands to jump into various social causes with athletes and artists that they work with, it’s critical to understand how your company’s actions will be received by customers, employees, shareholders, and the community.

Before announcing any sort of cause marketing campaign, talk with your customers and employees about the causes that are most important to them. Surveys and polls can be easily circulated internally and externally so that brands can understand what their stakeholders hold close to their heart.

By aligning the cause that you’re supporting with the cause that your stakeholders care about, you can assure that the message will land in an authentic way.

3) Add value; don’t thump your chest – The last thing you want to do as a brand getting involved in cause-related marketing with athletes is to make the partnership all about you. Rather, think of your company as a fan of the influential individual you’re partnering with and of the cause you’re championing.

Balkam’s book, 3-Win Sponsorship comes out in Dec 2019 Credit: New Degree Press

Turn the attention towards what value your company can bring to the table to address the issue at hand. Whether it be cash, products, or employee time, companies can provide a lot of value to important social issues. The important thing to remember is to avoid coming off as “holier than thou,” and virtue-signaling.

When telling the story of your brand’s involvement with an athlete or artist’s cause, focus on the human story and amplify the importance of the issue. Talk about why your brand is adding value to the cause, and how your athlete partner is such a tremendous leader in this space.

Companies who have the “We not Me” mindset will be much more effective in supporting cause through their marketing platforms.

It is my belief that the decade of the 2020s will be an inflection point for the sports and entertainment industry. Business models will change in order to serve all stakeholders. We can take the lead from talent in our industry, but we have to evolve the way we operate our businesses.

Talent will “Quarterback” us forward on key issues, but the rest of us need to find ways to contribute as well. There are too many issues in the world to tackle for businesses to sit on the sidelines.

John Balkam is the author of 3-Win Sponsorship, which will be published in Dec 2019 by New Degree Press. He is also the founder of Third Win Group (TWG), a Washington, D.C., consultancy focused on driving both financial value and social impact for clients in the sports and entertainment industry.