It takes real effort to stand out amid cynical, profit-driven social justice campaigns that wrap flip flops, french fry boxes and vodka bottles in pride flags, sodas that unite protesters and police, and beers that bond bigots and the people they loathe. But even in this hellscape, the NFL has set a new low for corporate hypocrisy and disingenuousness.
Unveiled on Wednesday, a two-minute commercial uses the murder of Botham Jean—a black man executed as he ate ice cream on his sofa by white Dallas police officer Amber Guyger—to address the epidemic of racist police killings. If there was ever a case for hating the messenger, not the message, this would be it. After three years of blackballing Colin Kaepernick for kneeling to protest police brutality and abuse against black folks, the NFL, with an assist from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, has co-opted his message even as it vigorously tries to scrub away his legacy.
The truth is, it’s a good ad. Photos, home videos and the reminiscences of Jean’s parents and sister bring to vivid life a man who has, since his murder, been reduced to another horrific story of black death. The emotionally resonant commercial ends with a solemn fade to black, and a single sentence of white text fills the screen. “We need to do more to create change,” it reads as Jean’s mother expresses the same sentiment.
Those words hew awfully close to ones spoken by Kaepernick back in 2016—the last season he played before being blacklisted by the NFL, which tweeted out its new PSA with the claim that “we are all in this together.”“There’s a lot of things that need to change,” Kaepernick said at the time about why he had chosen to sit, and then kneel, as the national anthem played before games. “One specifically is police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right.”
In response to the din of willingly obtuse responses to Kaepernick’s protest—elevated in volume by Donald Trump—the NFL chose to get rid of the quarterback and threaten the livelihoods of players who respectfully protested racist police abuse. The NFL does not have a moral compass, much less one aimed at racial justice; for years, the organization has looked the other way as players are credibly accused of domestic violence, sexual assault, and drug use. Kaepernick wasn’t banned for bringing politics onto a field where paid military displays are a regular feature. He was sidelined for violating the one tenet to which the NFL adheres, which is ensuring that white fans aren’t dissuaded from spending money by inconvenient reminders of antiblack racism during their beloved pastime.
The Jean ad is part of a larger NFL initiative called “Inspire Change”—a name that only a rebranding consultant could love—a campaign dedicated to instigating social justice in the areas of “education and economic empowerment, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform.” Launched in 2019, the partnership between the NFL and Roc Nation has a pot of roughly $90 million, about $3 million dollars contributed by each team’s billionaire owner.
Jay-Z’s decision to align himself with an organization that has never concerned itself with racial justice has been controversial from the moment it was announced. For the NFL, having Jay-Z on board—and a token black face in the boardroom—seemed like an all too easy way to circumnavigate questions around race and racism in the organization. Jay-Z’s brand has always been black wealth as black freedom, a view that ahistorically suggests that capitalism is the key to black political progress. “Inspire Change” apparel and merchandise, and “Songs of the Season,” which will put established artists’ music in NFL promotions each month, are among the earliest programs the project has yielded. That’s in addition to the newly released series of videos—the Jean commercial is the third—ostensibly dedicated to “human cost of police brutality.”
But in reality, this is a craven move by the NFL that attempts to have it both ways. The NFL gets to use Kaepernick’s uncredited message to clean up the PR mess it made by ditching the quarterback, but nothing else changes. The organization has no plans to rehire Kaepernick, nor to have him be involved in the police brutality campaign he essentially led them to undertake. What’s more, you can bet, its players remain well aware that kneeling during the anthem could cost them their jobs. The NFL’s “owners,” a conservative bunch who collectively donated $8.9 million to the Trump campaign, will continue to profit off all the black bodies that endure brutal hits and suffer irreparable damage, as long as they don’t speak of uncomfortable racial truths.
The San Francisco 49ers are heading to the Super Bowl, and the ad will air there, while the broadcast will almost surely avoid all references to the fact that Kaepernick led the team to its last appearance at the event, another attempt to clear away any residual evidence of his impact. In 2017, in response to Trump’s most belligerent attacks on NFL players, the organization’s owners tried to #All Lives Matter Kaepernick’s protest by going through a series of empty motions, locking arms with players, and even kneeling in some cases, all while disavowing any political intent—what writer Jamil Smith perfectly described as a “bland exhibition of corporate “unity.”
The NFL’s latest campaign is an updated, but far savvier version of that gesture, a virtual “taking a knee” that takes pains to erase the originator of the practice.