Northwestern, Under Armour try to wrap themselves in the flag, but get flagged


Professional football — even the NCAA version — is such a fruitful field for crisis management of late.

Northwestern University, the near-Chicago academic giant of the Big Ten, arranged with Under Armour for special uniforms. Under Armour, which designed Maryland’s checkerboard square/state flag football unies, also made special editions for Northwestern, like the American flag. [Thanks to PRNews and my EMA colleague Allison Conte for reporting on this.]

Rule 1: Don’t mess with the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, civil rights or the American flag, among other priorities. Americans like their flag on poles, not wrapped over football helmets — what gives Northwestern the right to claim its use in this way anyway? — or blood-splattered.

Under Armour may feel the pressure from Nike, whose Oregon football uniforms seem to set the standard for Mercury-swift and Hercules-powerful.

As is so often the case in crisis situations like this [Ralph Lauren making 2012 U.S. Olympic uniforms in China; Lululemon making see-through yoga pants] you have to wonder “what were they thinking?”

On the surface, the Northwestern effort seems altruistic, ordering patriotic uniforms for the Wounded Warrior Project, playing in them Nov. 16 after Veterans Day, and then auctioning the 53-plus jerseys. But we’d have to guess that NWU probably ordered a few more than those for use on the field that day. And no doubt those jerseys would be hot sellers online and in the campus bookstore. [Cynically, they may now be even more in demand, becoming collector's items].

Are these well-meaning folks in the Northwestern AD’s office and the Under Armour design studio really so naive as to expect no blowback from this line of thinking? Even if they’d only used the flag, what gives them the right to import it into their solo realms and make money from it? And then to make it look like it’s blood-splattered? To honor a group of wounded veterans? Hello?

When altruism meets profit motive, altruism usually has cleat marks on its back.

Finally, the two statements in response to the social media-generated criticism were weak at best. Pull the plug, folks. You’re staring at a no-win. This is Northwestern vs. Ohio State circa 1972. You’re going to get run over. Say you were sorry, you’ll contribute $50,000 to the Wounded Warriors in other ways and stop this foolishness now, before it really hurts. Manage the crisis, or it will manage you.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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