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Jazz sponsor pulls out of luxury suite, calls support of Black Lives Matter ‘political propaganda’

Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — SME Steel President Dieter Klohn said he is taken aback by the furor that’s erupted over a letter the company sent to Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller expressing concern over the actions of players and team management in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial equality efforts.

Klohn, whose West Jordan-based company has been a suite holder at Vivint Arena going back to 1992 just a year after the venue’s opening as the Delta Center, did not equivocate on the content of the Sept. 9 letter in an interview with the Deseret News Thursday. But he did offer further clarification of the stance he said he and fellow SME leaders were trying to share with Jazz ownership.

“There was no intent ... to offend anyone or take sides in what is a highly volatile political situation,” Klohn said. “We are not that kind of company. I believe strongly that this is America and people can express their opinion and that it is our right and privilege to do so ... and a lot of people lost life and limb so we can enjoy that privilege.

“But not in a sports arena that is not meant for that kind of action,” he said.

In the letter, signed by Klohn and three other SME executives, the company detailed its long affiliation with the team, its expenditures totaling some $7 million in ticket, licensing fees and other expenses related to its luxury suite at the arena over the years and its “disappointment and disillusionment” with the NBA in general, and Jazz players and management in specific, over kneeling in protest during the national anthem and NBA games that “appear to be a billboard for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.”

“It is ironic that pampered and exceptionally well-paid athletes cavalierly exercise the freedom bought for them through the courage, and sacrifice of this nation’s servicemen and women by disrespectfully kneeling during the country’s anthem,” the letter reads. “By the same token, it seems odd and inappropriate for NBA players to adorn their jerseys with names and tributes for felons and politically-divisive slogans from Black Lives Matter, when true heroes like Chris Kyle and Pat Tillman go unnoticed and unremarked.”

Back in July, NBA league officials and players representatives approved a list of 29 phrases that relate to the fight for racial equality that players could choose from to replace their last names on the backs of jerseys. While no names were included on that list, many players have paid respects to individuals who have been the victims of police shootings by featuring those names on their shoes.

The SME letter goes on to deride the Jazz for, according to the authors, turning an entertainment venue into a forum for political speech.

“The recent actions of the NBA — including the owners, coaches and players of the Utah Jazz — have converted a beloved entertainment venue into a forum for dissemination of political propaganda which is divisive and completely out of step with our company and its values,” the letter reads.

SME said due to actions by Jazz management and players it characterized as “disrespectful,” it would be dissolving its suite holder contract until things change.

“NBA franchises, and players, like all others in this country, certainly have the right to freely express their views,” the letter reads. “They cannot, however, force paying customers to be subjected to their ostentatious acts of disrespect for our country and its values without any consequences.

“SME will not renew its licensing agreement or make any further payment for its suite until the NBA and its franchises again offer sports and entertainment rather than divisive political propaganda.”

On Thursday, Klohn said the company had not received a response from Miller or the team. A Jazz spokesman declined a Deseret News request for comment on the SME letter.

While the team remained quiet, the court of public opinion was anything but and social media platforms were rife with commentary on the issue.

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, in a tweet about SME Steel’s letter, said Thursday night “It’s your right to do that... just like it’s ours to kneel,” accompanied by a hand raised in a peace sign.

Outrage appeared to be far outstripping support of the SME letter in the digital realm, though Klohn said the correspondence SME has received directly since the missive went public was almost entirely supportive.

SME Steel has an extensive project portfolio as a structural steel contractor, including a long list of local clients. Klohn said he does not expect any significant negative reaction from clients.

Gail Miller hugs Nellie Mainor, 9, who had a kidney transplant for dense deposit kidney disease and wanted to show Gail Miller around the dialysis clinic at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City after a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. During the press conference, Intermountain Healthcare announced it will build an additional Primary Children’s Hospital campus in Lehi. Gail Miller and the Miller family donated $50 million to the cause.
Gail Miller hugs Nellie Mainor, 9, who had a kidney transplant for dense deposit kidney disease and wanted to show Gail Miller around the dialysis clinic at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City after a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. During the press conference, Intermountain Healthcare announced it will build an additional Primary Children’s Hospital campus in Lehi. Gail Miller and the Miller family donated $50 million to the cause.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Intermountain Healthcare has a long-running relationship with SME, a company that’s been a prime contractor on past and upcoming projects. Intermountain also has a new sponsorship connection to the Las Vegas Raiders, another professional sports franchise whose owners have taken a position of support for Black Lives Matter. Last December, the Raiders and Intermountain announced a deal that would give the hospital system naming rights to the team’s new corporate headquarters and performance center in Las Vegas.

Intermountain is also closely connected to the Jazz, including through a commitment from the Miller family to make a $50 million philanthropic gift to help the provider build a $500 million Primary Children’s Hospital facility in Lehi.

Intermountain Healthcare representatives did not respond to Deseret News requests via email and phone for comment on the SME letter on Thursday.

While the Jazz declined to stipulate if any other Vivint suite holders have backed out of rental contracts, no other sponsors have publicly announced changes to agreements or issues with management or player conduct.

Another longtime Jazz sponsor that’s poured millions into the organization through the 5 for the Fight jersey patch sponsorship is Qualtrics’ co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith.

Unlike most NBA jersey patch sponsorships that mostly focus on corporate promotion, Smith used the opportunity to plug his philanthropic organization, one that is working to raise money in the fight against cancer, a disease his father battled successfully amid the early days of the company.

Smith has registered his support of the Jazz ownership and players’ stances on Black Lives Matter and other racial equality issues via his social media postings.