Thursday, November 22, 2012

Corporate Sponsorships and the Power of the Boycott

Extraordinarily interesting news out of England and the Premier League last month:  Several members of the Newcastle United Football Club may refuse to wear the corporate logo of Wonga, a short-term, pay day loan company, on their game jerseys because Wonga's company practices are an affront to their religious beliefs.  Newcastle United FC recently announced a corporate sponsorship agreement with Wonga.

Newcastle footballers Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa are all practicing Muslims. "Under Sharia law, Muslims must not benefit from either lending money or receiving money from another person - meaning that interest is prohibited. Interest is not paid on Islamic bank accounts or added to mortgages." Because Wonga is seen by many in the UK, much like pay day loan companies in the United States, as established to prey on the poor and the unbanked, Ba, Cisse, Tiote and Ben Arfa may refuse to promote its practices by refusing to display the Wonga logo on their jerseys.

From the story in the Daily Mail:  "Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, told The Independent: 'There are two aspects to this. We have the rulings of the religious law and we have the individual’s choice and decision on how they want to follow or not follow that rule. 'The idea is to protect the vulnerable and the needy from exploitation by the rich and powerful.' 'When they [Wonga] are lending and are charging large amounts of interest, it means the poor will have short-term benefit from the loan but long-term difficulty in paying it back because the rate of interest is not something they can keep up with. The Islamic system is based on a non-interest-based system of transaction.'"

Demba Ba, Newcastle United FC
In fact, on some short-term loans, Wonga charges an interest rate that would annually exceed 4,000%. "Should a Newcastle fan accept a loan to buy a £50 club shirt, they would have to repay £71.92 after a month with a rate equivalent to 4,212 per cent per year."  Local politicians in Newcastle were aghast to learn that Newcastle United had partnered with a corporate sponsor such as Wonga: "Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, said: 'I’m appalled and sickened that they would sign a deal with a legal loan shark. It’s a sad indictment of the profit-at-any-price culture at Newcastle United. We are fighting hard to tackle legal and illegal loan sharking and having a company like this right across the city on every football shirt that’s sold undermines all our work.'"

Boycotting a corporate sponsor would be deemed a hugely controversial move in the United States. In fact, the activist athlete has been discussed on the Sports Law Blog many times over the years, and has seemed to be in decline since the advent of the corporate endorsement and the potential to profit in the dozens of millions of dollars. That said, there appears to have been a rise in athlete activism in recent months . . . .

In addition, pay day loan companies have been harshly criticized in recent months as predatory lenders and are typically found only in poor or run down communities.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of new Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, has vowed to rein in and regulate pay day loan shops in the United States.  Clearly, pay day lenders are controversial "across the pond" as well.

cross-posted on the Sports Law Blog
(photo of Demba Ba courtesy of Creative Commons and Egghead 06)  

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