Setting a Sponsorship & Human Rights Strategy: Collaborating & Taking Action to Address Risks

July 24, 2023



By Keri Lloyd

Sponsorship & Human Rights Series Part III. Taking Action to Address Risks & Collaborating to Drive Systemic Change 

Companies’ responsibility to respect human rights encompasses their sponsorship activities and sponsors’ involvement in infringements on fundamental rights is increasingly in the public eye. In the final part of this three-part series, we explore how companies can build on their human rights commitment and due diligence to prioritize issues, act to address them, and remediate impacts as part of a sponsorship and human rights strategy.  

The UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs), the foundational business and human rights standard, establish the responsibility of companies to address all the adverse human rights impacts they are involved in. Yet, the UNGPs also acknowledge that it may not always be possible to address them simultaneously. Companies are instead expected to prioritize the most severe issues associated with their operations, including sponsorships, and address them. The UNGPs helpfully define three criteria for determining the severity of an impact: its scale, scope, and irremediable character. Companies seeking to prioritize impacts can do so by applying this criterion, summarized in the sponsorship context as:  

  • Scale: the gravity or degree of the impact on human right(s). For example, risks of grievous injury to athletes may be considered more serious relative to event attendees opted-in to digital advertising without their consent.
  • Scope: the number of people that are or could be affected. Consider, fewer athletes may face risks of serious injury relative to event attendees opted-in to digital advertising without their consent.
  • Remediability: the degree to which those impacted could be restored to their state before the infringement. For instance, it may not be possible to restore those facing grievous injury to the same position they were in before the harm.

Meeting any one of these criteria could signal that an impact is severe and should be addressed first. Determining what action is appropriate for companies to take depends on their relationship to each risk and leverage to address it. Companies should therefore consider if they are in a position of causing, contributing, or being directly linked to the adverse impact or potential risk.  

To consider an example, in 2019 two former NFL players filed a civil rights lawsuit over the NFL’s use of race-based adjustments, or ‘race-norming’, in dementia testing, a practice that assumes Black players start with lower cognitive function. Players alleged infringements on their right to non-discrimination, given the unfair and differential treatment of Black players, and also access to remedy given that the practice made it difficult for Black retirees to qualify for awards in the League’s settlement of concussion claims. Sponsors of the NFL at that time may therefore have been linked to infringements on the rights to non-discrimination and access to remedy alleged by the complainants. In this position, sponsors would be expected to use their leverage with the NFL (for instance, through private engagements, public statements, or scaling back the relationship at sponsorship renewal) to mitigate the impact. Ultimately, in 2021 the NFL vowed to stop the practice of race-norming and retroactively applied the awards to Black athletes who now qualify.​ 

Across different industries, sponsors have acted to mitigate potential risks and remediate adverse impacts, including through:

  • Integrating human rights into partner and supplier contracts. As a result of engagement with external stakeholders on their sponsorship of the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar, AB InBev introduced human rights clauses in local supplier contracts and subcontracted supplier agreements. In line with best practice, AB InBev supported the effectiveness of contractual clauses with human rights due diligence, by screening local suppliers, and capacity building, by conducting special trainings with local teams.
  • Ensuring that sponsorship activities are in the scope of grievance and complaint mechanisms and engaging entities on grievances where necessary. For example, Adidas Third Party Complaint Process. In both 2018 and 2021, Adidas received, responded to, and publicly disclosed grievances related to entities they sponsor: the Israel Football Association and the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
  • Collaborating with other sponsors and key stakeholders, such as civil society organizations and governments, to increase the company’s understanding of the risk and their leverage to address it. Members of the Centre for Sport & Human Rights’ Advisory Council, for example, commit to work through their multi-stakeholder convenings to mitigate human rights risks and promote opportunities for responsible sport.

Taking a step back, corporate sponsors can use their experience and leverage to promote responsible business conduct among the entities they sponsor. Sponsored entities have their own responsibility to respect human rights, one which is increasingly being discussed and scrutinized. For example, Matt Perault and Asheesh Agarwal, writing for Lawfare, emphasize this responsibility in the context of the potential golf merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf and call the sports world to employ human rights best practices already familiar to other industries.  

Companies can, and should, use their position as a sponsor to engage sponsored entities on their approach to human rights, expect and support remediation processes, promote sustained improvement, and identify opportunities to build capacity. By incorporating continuous engagement and collaboration into their sponsorship and human rights strategy, companies can not only mitigate risks but drive systemic change. 

If you have questions or if you would like to learn more about how your organization can establish and operationalize a sponsorship and human rights strategy, you can reach us at