Palestinians activists are protesting this weekend at storefronts and offices for the German athletic wear manufacturer Puma. The reason? Puma sponsors the Israel Football Association (IFA), which includes six teams in settlements in the West Bank.
Last year Puma signed a four-year sponsorship deal with the IFA to provide equipment, including the kits, for all of Israel’s national football teams. In doing so they replaced Adidas, which had been the sponsor for the preceding 10 years until it ended its relationship with the IFA amid a similar campaign.
At the heart of the issue is that the football teams the IFA allows to play in the West Bank are located in occupied territory in violation of both international law and the rules of football’s global governing body FIFA. Through its agreement with the IFA, Puma is not only helping to normalize this situation but is also profiting from it. More broadly, by sponsoring Israeli national teams, Puma is helping Israel harness the power of football’s global popularity and potent symbolism “to use participation in European and international competitions as a means to launder its international image and present itself as a normal country.”
PACBI, or the the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the protests organizer, has rightly appealed to Puma, like Adidas before that, on the basis of its apparent commitment to social justice. Puma’s own code of conduct expresses a commitment of respect for human rights and as a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact, Puma has committed to “make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.” In 2018, Puma also launched its social justice #REFORM campaign, inspired by Tommie Smith, the American sprinter who, along with John Carlos, raised his fist at the 1968 Olympic Games in protest at racism in the United States. Yet despite stating that “sports has always been a stage for social movements and Puma has never shied away from standing with those seeking faster [reform],” this is exactly what Puma is doing in choosing to sponsor the IFA.
This sort of corporate hypocrisy shows that as much as companies may express a commitment to human rights and social justice, money remains the ultimate motivating factor. While it is good to have companies express such commitments and associate themselves with progressive causes, and it can no doubt have a positive impact, they are making a calculation that doing so will be beneficial to their reputation, their brand, and thus their bottom line. As such there will always be concerns about the depth of these commitments. This is not only the case with Puma but also with other companies such as Nike and its ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the National Football Association (NFL) quarterback blackballed from the league for protesting against police brutality, or its campaign challenging sexism and gender inequality in sport featuring high-profile athletes such as tennis player Serena Williams and runner Caster Semenya.
In the end any decision Puma makes about the future of its sponsorship of the IFA will be about money rather than human rights, about whether it thinks the relationship is sufficiently damaging to its reputation for it to take action or not.
The boycott campaign against Puma is supported by over 200 Palestinian sports clubs and associations, as well as Palestinian athletes — including the captain of the men’s national football team Abdullatef Buhdari and Aya Khattab of the women’s national football team — and international teams. Among the athletes supporting the campaign, and who supported the prior campaign against Adidas, is also Mahmoud Sarsak. Sarsak is a Palestinian footballer who played for the national team before his career was ended after Israel arrested and imprisoned him for three years without charges or a trial, during which he went on a three-month hunger strike. Writing earlier this year, Sarsak highlighted not just the issue of the settlement teams but also the impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian athletes, many of whom have been injured or even killed by Israeli forces. “Endless restrictions on freedom of movement, access to resources and fundamental civil liberties make engaging in sport a constant struggle for Palestinians — these violations of rights are totally incompatible with the principle of sport being accessible to all.”
Adidas ended its sponsorship of the IFA in 2018 amid a similar boycott campaign. In a response to the campaign, Adidas said that it supported and upheld human rights and that it had it raised with FIFA the need for it to make a decision regarding the status of the Israeli settlement teams. Despite subsequent claims that the decision by Adidas was not politically motived and that it simply opted not to extend the sponsorship deal beyond the agreed term, the reality is that doing business with Israel is becoming increasingly risky.
The campaign against Puma is part of the wider sports boycott aspect of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Despite growing more slowly than other parts of BDS, the sports boycott has been steadily gaining momentum since 2011. This saw the start of an ultimately successful campaign to get Adidas to drop its sponsorship of the Jerusalem marathon as well as the start of an unsuccessful but profile-raising campaign against the decision to award Israel hosting rights for the 2013 European men’s under-21 football tournament. But perhaps the most significant developments in the sports boycott have come in recent years. The controversy over the status of the status of the football teams in illegal Israeli settlements garnered substantial and sustained international attention, despite FIFA deciding to ignore its own rules and international law in not taking action. The decision by a number of NFL players to withdraw from a PR trip to Israel was crucial for the profile of the sports boycott in the United States, given that most prior actions had been centered in Europe and Asia. And Argentina’s decision to cancel a friendly football match against Israel in Jerusalem represented the highest-profile example to date of a team refusing to compete against Israel. These developments have all highlighted the power of sport as a means for drawing attention to Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights and international law and showed that there are consequences for its actions.
Increasingly companies, organizations, institutions, teams, and individuals are deciding against engagement with Israel as the BDS movement grows in strength. While Puma has yet to respond to the boycott campaign, the question it must consider is whether it is in its best interests to associate itself with an apartheid state that continues to brutalize the Palestinian people. If Puma does not act, then the pressure on it is only likely to increase. And if does end its deal, then the next company that decides to sponsor the IFA will likely be targeted by the BDS movement too. If the pattern continues, Israel may find itself running out of sponsors.