Hockey Canada and Livestrong: Pushing the boundaries of corporate social responsibility?

Tessa Bonhomme. Photo from Facebook.

Recently Hockey Canada announced that the national women’s team would play their first game of the 2013 World Championships wearing Livestrong inspired jerseys.  That’s right, goodbye red and white (for one game) and hello black and yellow.  This decision comes from an attempt by Livestrong, Lance Armstrong’s cancer charity, to distance itself from the whole Armstrong debacle and Hockey Canada’s desire to demonstrate that their players are “great role models”.  Nike is also the sponsor for Hockey Canada and Nike has committed to Livestrong for the next two years, even without Armstrong.  Hockey Canada explains that it is important for us to look beyond one man and to the millions afflicted by cancer, such as:

Canadian forward Jayna Hefford’s father Larry [who] died in 2007 of the disease.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser’s sister Jane [who] is a cancer survivor.

Defenceman Tessa Bonhomme, who is sponsored by Nike, [and] is a poster girl for the Livestrong jersey campaign.  Her grandmother Sylvia is a breast cancer survivor.

When I first saw the new jersey I, like many, was confused.  Are we team Livestrong or team Canada?  What does Livestrong have to do with a competition between countries? Herein lies the tangled web of nationalism, corporatism, and ‘social responsibility’.  Nationalism and sport have a strong marriage, as do sport and corporations, and sport and philanthropy; therefore, perhaps it was inevitable that nationalism and philanthropy would soon be joined by the bonds of sport.

My concerns with this partnership are three-fold.  First, is it ethical to associate the Canadian national team with the Livestrong brand given the manner in which Armstrong fell from grace?  Hayley Wickenheiser commented “It might be a little soon with what’s gone on with Lance, but the fact that they’ve disassociated themselves from the connection with him and what it stands for, which is raising money for cancer, is a good thing and what I’m all about.” However, the Canadian public doesn’t seem to be as forgiving as Wickenheiser. One commenter on the Globe and Mail article wrote “The problem with Hockey Canada’s decision is that Livestrong is inextricably interwoven with Lance Armstrong a serial doper, cheat and liar who made millions of dollars personally based on fraud and false pretences.”  I would have to agree that Livestrong and Armstrong are still very much a package deal. Perhaps, this will change in the future but right now it is still known as Lance Armstrong’s charity.  If Nike is fine to carry on without Armstrong and with Tiger Woods that is up to them but bringing together Livestrong, Nike and Hockey Canada seems like an unnatural and forced collaboration.

The second problem is how easily the symbols of the nation have been substituted for corporate and philanthropic goals.  It is not uncommon for sports teams to don special jerseys such as camouflage prints in honour of veterans or pink jerseys for breast cancer.  Each of these examples brings its own concerns but these examples generally happen with local teams, not national teams.  The Globe and Mail highlighted that Team Canada has worn special jerseys to open tournaments before.  In 2007, the women wore pink jerseys as a throwback to the jerseys worn in 1990, and the junior men’s team wore Saskatchewan Roughriders green and white to open the 2010 World Junior Championships in Saskatoon.  These seem like pretty random choices as well but at least the pink jerseys were an homage to the team itself, and the green and white jerseys were locally inspired.  Isn’t changing our jersey colours like changing the colours on the Canadian flag? I realize colours are colours and red and white do not actually represent anything about Canada or Canadians except our flag, but where does the country end and the corporation begin?  Suffice it to say creating black and yellow jerseys does far more for Nike, Livestrong and the business of hockey in Canada than it does for Canadian hockey.

Photo from The Province.

My third concern is the uncritical acceptance afforded to cancer charities.  Certainly cancer reaches far and wide and it has become a very popular and easy disease to market. It is, in many ways, a corporate ‘no-brainer’ as far as social responsibility goes because cancer always seems to affect the innocent.  Can you imagine the board room discussions if the charity of choice for the new jersey was an AIDS charity?  The Livestrong foundation argues that the “beauty of the [product] line is that it raises funds for [its] mission, but it also raises such great awareness and it gives people a way to celebrate people in their lives who have had cancer, have survived cancer or maybe passed away from cancer.”  But do we need to raise more awareness about cancer?  Certainly Hefford, Wickenheiser, and Bonhomme were all aware of cancer before this partnership came about because they experienced it.  We all know it exists but the amount of research about what actually causes cancer is actually pretty sparse. This would explain why most people are shocked when they are diagnosed with cancer (except for maybe lung cancer patients) and why it afflicts the healthy and the unhealthy, the rich and the poor (although in varying degrees), the young and the old.  The problem is cancer reacts differently in different individuals and research studies generally use very controlled groups of people. For example, in breast cancer research there has been a plethora of overlapping research conducted on white, middle-class, middle-aged women but very little is known about what causes cancer in every other type of woman.  I believe the following quote from the documentary Pink Ribbons applies well to this situation.  I have substituted the term ‘breast cancer’ with Livestrong and/or cancer, and ‘pink’ with Livestrong’s black and yellow:

For people to finally rise up and object people have to know, they have to be aware of the magnitude of the lies they are being fed.  And the lies are comforting lies. People are not going to want to give up these lies.  They are comforting. [Cancer awareness] is comforting.  Because you are doing something about something that scares you.  [Livestrong], despite the fact that it does not reflect any reality, works. [Black and yellow] vacuum cleaners work.  [Black and yellow] teddy bears sell. [Black and yellow] yogurt also sells.  It works and as long as it works they are going to keep pushing it.  And it is tempting to say that they must be in a conspiracy but that’s way too easy. I wish it were, because if it were a conspiracy then we could expose it and suddenly people would be aware.  But it’s not.  It’s business as usual.

There may be plenty of good intentions behind this partnership but I think business as usual is probably the most accurate description of this initiative. I’m okay with 50/50 tickets, special guests and even a jersey patch to represent a charity (e.g. Canuck Place Children’s Hospice patches have been worn on the jersey’s of the Vancouver Canucks) but to change the jersey colours for one game seems more like a gimmick than an ongoing partnership.  I dunno, my gut says that the national team representing a charity just as much as it represents the nation is misguided. However, others have suggested that the Terry Fox Foundation would have been a better fit for the team.  I’d like to hear your thoughts: No charity? Yes charity? Wrong charity?

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About courtneyszto
Public sociologist and tempered radical in training. Sports is my life. I recently graduated from the University of Toronto with my Masters in Exercise Science. My Master's thesis focused on corporate social responsibility in professional sports, international development and gender equality. My undergraduate degree is Bachelor of Human Kinetics in Sport Management. I am a Vancouver Canucks fan through and through. I have worked in event management, outdoor education, the golf industry, and coached tennis. Soon to be PhD student.

One Response to Hockey Canada and Livestrong: Pushing the boundaries of corporate social responsibility?

  1. alvinema says:

    I agree that it is quite gimmicky and that a lasting partnership through links on its website (with perhaps advice on how to reduce your risk of cancer through physical activity and proper nutrition) is much more substantial. But if anything, yellow is also the colour of the daffodil, a symbol of the Canadian Cancer Society. Just like Pink Ribbons, I know the Canadian Cancer Society charity has also been subject to scrutiny with spending more money on fundraising than research (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/07/04/cancer-society-funding.html), but idealistically, having a large organization partner up with this charity would reduce its need to constantly spend its time fundraising.

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