When retired basketball star Shaquille O'Neal turned up at a Washington school to help promote first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign Friday, the response was swift. Because he promotes his own line of sugary drinks, health advocates questioned his dedication to fighting obesity.
"I wonder whether a partnership with Shaquille O'Neal does more harm than good," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
It certainly wasn't the first time sports figures have been part of selling policy — or the first time it drew complaints. Just as they help sell shoes and sports drinks, athletes and their teams have increasingly been used by government agencies to promote their programs, from Obamacare and environmental protection to military service. The results have been mixed.
But the polarizing debate hasn't kept all sports organizations from getting involved. The Baltimore Ravens, soon to mount a defense of their 2012 Super Bowl title, announced a partnership last week with Maryland Health Connection to help promote the new Affordable Care Act insurance marketplace.
The partnership is designed to boost outreach efforts less than one month before the exchanges launch Oct. 1. Officials estimate that more than 70 percent of uninsured Marylanders have watched, listened to, or attended a Ravens game in the past year, and the partnership will include a paid-media campaign on television, radio, and Web.
The Ravens are not the only team to promote pieces of the Affordable Care Act. The Washington Nationals tapped presidential mascot Teddy Roosevelt to tout the insurance exchanges in July. Individual athletes have also gotten involved. Former NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson paid a visit to the White House late last month and tweeted out a reminder about the exchanges.
Many of these efforts have not been politically popular.
Earlier this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's announcement that the administration was talking about promotion with sports organizations — specifically, the National Football League — produced a backlash. Senate Republican leaders sent letters to six professional sports leagues — the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the Professional Golfers' Association of America, and NASCAR — imploring them not to promote Obamacare.
"Given the divisiveness and persistent unpopularity of this bill, it is difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion," wrote Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mc"‹Connell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, in their letter to the NFL.
The NFL backed away from any involvement.
The offices of McConnell and Cornyn did not respond to requests for comment on the Ravens' partnership. But the NFL did. "It was a team decision," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an e-mail. "We have not had any further discussion with the administration."
Americans for Tax Reform, an antitax group, also responded to the Ravens announcement, starting an online petition against the partnership. "They're about to commit an unsportsmanlike penalty against football fans everywhere by shoving slick new Obamacare ads down fans' throats," it said.
In other cases, the costs of promoting policy through sports have raised eyebrows. The armed services, for example, have cut back — but not eliminated — the use of sports promotions. While the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have ended their NASCAR sponsorships, the National Guard is paying a total of $53 million on motor-sports and wrestling promotions, including its sponsorship of driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. An amendment by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., to limit such sponsorships has failed in the House for the past three years.
In other cases, teams that have taken no direct involvement in policy promotion have been used to illustrate administration-backed efforts. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency — which regularly uses President Obama's #ActOnClimate Twitter hashtag — published a "Green Sports Scorecard" highlighting teams and sports venues that have taken steps to reduce carbon pollution and climate change.
For example, the Seattle Mariners installed an LED scoreboard, dropping electricity consumption by more than 90 percent; the Philadelphia Eagles have switched many of their cleaning products to environmentally friendly brands; and the Cleveland Indians have expanded their stadium recycling facilities to cut waste.
EPA's scorecard also included a link to Obama's climate action plan and highlighted the president's efforts on climate change.
The Let's Move! campaign has pursued a broad range of partnerships in the sports world. Participants have included the L.A. Galaxy, tennis great Andre Agassi, U.S. Olympians, and a host of MLB and NFL players, coaches, and executives.
But O'Neal's promotion of Soda Shaq, a drink produced by Arizona Beverages that hit stores this summer, immediately drew fire.
"I understand that they want to find stars that will appeal to children and that will get good visibility," Wootan said, "but, at the same time, you have to be careful about the kind of message that it sends."