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Pepsi, other big brands, stick by NFL while voicing outrage at scandals

September 18, 2014, 12:51 AM UTC
NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens
Sep 11, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) gets tackled by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith (51) at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports - RTR45XAP
© USA Today Sports / Reuters USA Today Sports

The NFL is under fire for a wave of scandals regarding player conduct. But football remains America’s favorite sport, the NFL remains a mega money-maker, and that isn’t about to change. The league isn’t going anywhere and, for now, neither is its commissioner, Roger Goodell.

Big NFL sponsors are making sure of that.

On Tuesday, Radisson Hotels earned some headlines when it ended its partnership with the Minnesota Vikings, whose star running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted for child abuse. In a statement, the company said:

“Radisson takes this matter very seriously, particularly in light of our long-standing commitment to the protection of children. We are closely following the situation and effective immediately, Radisson is suspending its limited sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings while we evaluate the facts and circumstances.”

The company, headquartered in local Minnetonka, MN, got some good PR by being first out of the gate, so to speak, in taking action. Another Vikings sponsor, for example, New Era hats, has continued its alliance with the NFL.

Of critical importance, however, is that Radisson’s sponsorship was only with that one team, not the league. It does not have the same weight as a league-wide sponsor pulling out, which has not yet happened. Nike hasn’t done it—the apparel giant ended its sponsorships of Peterson himself, and of Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back who knocked out his wife in an elevator. But Nike has not ended its $1.1 billion licensing deal with the league. Beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev, which has a similar gargantuan deal with the NFL (6 years, $1.2 billion, signed in 2011), has not ended its sponsorship, but instead issued a statement voicing concern:

“We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”

Late Wednesday, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, following pressure from a number of women’s groups, weighed in with her own strong words – to potential applause from many, no doubt – after her company had put out only a short initial statement last week:

“I am a mother, a wife, and a passionate football fan. I am deeply disturbed that the repugnant behavior of a few players and the NFL’s acknowledged mishandling of these issues, is casting a cloud over the integrity of the league and the reputations of the majority of players who’ve dedicated their lives to a career they love. When it comes to child abuse and domestic violence, there is no middle ground. The behaviors are disgusting, absolutely unacceptable, and completely fly in the face of the values we at PepsiCo believe in and cherish.

Given PepsiCo’s long-standing partnership with the NFL, I know Roger Goodell. We have worked together for many years. I know him to be a man of integrity, and I am confident that he will do the right thing for the league in light of the serious issues it is facing.

Over the past several days, it is increasingly apparent that the NFL is starting to treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve. Hiring former FBI Director Robert Mueller to conduct a thorough investigation is a positive step, as is hiring three prominent women with significant, relevant expertise and assigning another, who is an NFL official, to help shape its domestic violence policies. These individuals must now be given the necessary time to review all relevant facts so that corrective actions can be taken, and well-tailored and effective policies against domestic violence and child abuse can be implemented immediately.

The reality for Commissioner Goodell and the NFL is that they now have an opportunity to effect positive change with the situation presented to them. I urge them to seize this moment. How they handle these cases going forward can help shape how we, as a nation, as a society, and as individuals treat domestic violence and child abuse.”

Notice that nowhere in Nooyi’s impassioned statement does she say that Pepsi will be suspending its sponsorship deal with the NFL. Instead, she voices support for Goodell, calling him a “man of integrity.” She also praises the league’s hiring of former FBI chief Bob Mueller, calling it a “positive step.”

The investigation that Nooyi praises is meant to do just what she suggests: reflect seriousness and look like a major step. But the investigation is already, in many ways, helping the league that ordered it up and the commissioner whose firing so many fans have called for.

It will take a while to complete, for one thing. Attorney Ted Wells’s investigation of the Miami Dolphins last year took three months, while former FBI director Louis Freeh’s investigation of Penn State University’s football program in 2012 took eight months. During that time, the strong TV ratings will continue, the outrage will dissipate, and the news cycle will move on to other stories. And the investigation could serve as a literal shield to exonerate Goodell, the man who “protects the shield” so fiercely, if the eventual Mueller Report directs blame at an underling, or group of underlings, or on a “systemic failure” of the league in general.

PepsiCo’s statement is, like AB InBev’s, a wait-and-see response. It is a threat meant to reflect to the angry public, and to PepsiCo’s customers, that PepsiCo cares, PepsiCo is concerned, PepsiCo is monitoring this situation closely. But at the end of the day, it says: PepsiCo stands with the NFL and Goodell.

Until a large brand with major influence walks away from the sport, its business will remain unharmed, and its commissioner will keep his throne, pending the results of the forthcoming Mueller Report.