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Kevin Hart’s past homophobic comments are a problem for brand partners like Nike too

Actor Kevin Hart talks during taping for an episode for Hart's TV series "What the Fit" during batting practice prior to baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Brewers Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Comedian, actor, fitness enthusiast and Nike athlete Kevin Hart.
By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Three days after Kevin Hart was revealed as the host of the 2019 Oscars this week, the actor and comedian withdrew from the role. He had faced mounting criticism over his history of homophobic comments, including tweets from several years ago—which he then rushed to delete—and a standup routine that included a bit about not wanting his son to be gay.

Hart ultimately apologized to the LGBTQ community, after initially refusing to do so, saying he had addressed the subject years ago. In 2015, for instance, he told Rolling Stone his standup joke was about his own insecurities, not his son, and added that he wouldn’t tell it today because the times are more sensitive. “I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can,” he said. Still, he said when announcing his withdrawal, “I do not want to be a distraction”:

At this point, the “big deal” made of Hart’s past comments may not just be a problem for him. The popular celebrity has been a face for brands such as Tommy John, Lyft, and Old Spice, though perhaps his most prominent deal is with Nike. ”Kevin Hart might just be the hardest-working man in branding,” declared an Adweek story (paywall) in September.

Hart and Nike have joined forces on a running clubsneakerscommercials, and events. Nike, meanwhile, has been particularly outspoken about standing behind values such as fair treatment of LGBTQ people. The situation leaves Nike and others in a tricky position, and illustrates the challenges of being a brand that puts social consciousness at the forefront of its image.

Hart may not be as closely associated with Nike as its big athletes, but the link is strong enough that some on social media are wondering what Nike’s stance is on Hart, whose voice is even part of the Nike running app.

Nike appears to consider the issue resolved. In a statement to Quartz, a spokesperson said: “Nike is opposed to discrimination of any kind, and Kevin Hart’s comments are not aligned with Nike’s support of the LGBTQ community. He has sincerely apologized for the insensitive comment from his past.“

In the past, Nike has drawn a sharp line. In 2016, the company severed its ties to Manny Pacquiao, after video surfaced of the boxing championship calling gay people “worse than animals.” Nike called his comments “abhorrent.” In a statement at the time, it said, “Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community.”

Pacquiao’s comments were disgusting beyond anything Hart has said, but that’s also why Hart’s situation is arguably more complicated. The company has had to decide exactly where its line falls.

When Nike started its relationship with Hart a few years ago, it was long after his first homophobic tweets, which were still public. But now with the spotlight on, Nike risks backlash to the suggestion that his past comments are tolerable. Hart isn’t as prominent a face of the brand as some of its athletes, so the relationship might not draw much attention. But then Nike risks looking like it only takes a stand when there’s big money to be made or lost.

At the same time, Nike has made a point of trying to reach out to the LGBTQ community. It releases an annual “BETRUE” collection during LGBTQ pride month in June, for instance, featuring sneakers, t-shirts, and other items. That audience, and more besides, may find Hart’s past homophobic comments unacceptable, apology or not.

At this stage it remains to be seen whether Hart, despite philanthropic acts such as creating a scholarship fund for college students, will be more thoroughly “cancelled” from mainstream pop culture. There is certainly room for him to make amends for his past statements. But the situation leaves brands with a decision to make about what they find acceptable when it comes to their public images.

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