a screenshot of an Instagram post with a picture of Oakland Roots fans holding up Palestinian flags and other signs
(Screenshot/Instagram @labrigadadelpuebla)

Did Oakland’s pro soccer team drop Puma because of BDS?

The Oakland Roots, a professional soccer team competing in the United Soccer League, found itself in a public relations quandary last week after BDS activists took credit for the team’s switch from Puma as its apparel sponsor. The German company is the official outfitter of Israel’s soccer association.

On Nov. 3, the club announced in a press release it would soon have a new apparel provider in MEYBA, a Barcelona-based company that for a decade outfitted that city’s premier football club.

The Roots announcement did not mention Israel, Palestine or the BDS movement; chief marketing officer Edreece Arghandiwal praised MEYBA’s “deep roots in the game,” saying the Spanish outfitter brings a “fresh energy to soccer apparel” and aligns with the Roots’ desire “to be different.”

Nevertheless, pro-BDS groups in the Bay Area were triumphant, crediting a yearlong pressure campaign to drop Puma that resulted in what they viewed as a bold statement against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. A Roots spokesperson, however, said the team’s deal with Puma had expired.

AROC, the S.F.-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center, called the decision “unprecedented” and a “rejection of PUMA’s complicity in Apartheid.” That narrative gained traction in the press when KTVU, the local Fox affiliate, reported that the Roots had ditched Puma “following calls from Palestinian rights groups to boycott the company.”

The Roots spokesperson told J. AROC’s public statements contained “inaccuracies” but did not elaborate. Days after its initial press release was published, the team quietly added a sentence stating, “Our decision to enter into a relationship with MEYBA was not politically motivated.”

KTVU could not be reached for a clarification on its report in time for this article.

At a time when antisemitism controversies have been rocking the sports and media industries, the confusing series of events — from the Roots’ announcement of the deal, to celebratory statements from the BDS activists, to the quiet edit of the team press release days later — demonstrated both the eagerness of BDS supporters to notch a political win against Israel, and skittishness from the Oakland Roots over taking a clear stand in the contentious debate.

Tye Gregory, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said he had met with team executives over the weekend who indicated to him that the decision to switch from Puma was about business, and had nothing to do with politics.

“It appears to simply be a better economic deal for them,” Gregory said. “There’s no indication that BDS factored into their decision-making whatsoever.”

To Gregory, AROC is “claiming false victory.” He criticized the group sharply, saying it “would be better suited supporting Arab communities, and spending less time trying to denigrate the Jewish community and supporters of Israel.” AROC, known for such protests as “Block the Boat” that temporarily prevented Israeli cargo ships from unloading at the Port of Oakland, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To many Jewish organizations, the BDS movement is inextricably linked to “eliminationist” anti-Israel views; some consider it to be antisemitic. The Anti-Defamation League describes BDS as a campaign to “delegitimize” Israel through pressuring and isolating the country and its institutions, businesses, cultural products and, “increasingly, Jews who support Israel’s right to exist.”

In 2016, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law often referred to as an “anti-BDS law” that forbids the state from contracting with companies that engage in discriminatory policies against foreign nations, including Israel.

The Roots, which launched in 2019 and play home games at Laney College, this year added a women’s unit, the Soul. The team competes in a Division II league, one rung below Major League Soccer. The team and its parent organization brand themselves as staunchly progressive in a town known not only for liberal politics but also for a history of radical left-wing movements. One of the club’s mottos is “we play on stolen land.”

For a year, AROC said, the club had been under pressure from pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel groups, including a left-wing group of fans known as the Town Brigade, to ditch its partnership with Puma, which has outfitted the Israeli national team since 2018.

Boycotting Puma and Israeli companies that do significant business with Israel is a focus of the BDS movement. BDS calls for the boycott of Puma because its partner, the Israel Football Association, “includes teams in Israel’s illegal settlements” in the West Bank. In years past, BDS has called for a boycott of Adidas for the same reason.

In a tweet that earned more than 170 likes and 90 retweets, AROC said the Roots’ decision to switch from Puma was “a victory for the people of Palestine, the people of Oakland and the Bay Area, and all people fighting for a world free from oppression.”

The Town Brigade added, also in a tweet, “a lot of people [had] worked really hard to make this happen.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.