Rebranding the NFL: How the League Shifted Its Message on Racial Justice

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Arizona State University’s Kenneth Shropshire talks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about how corporate leaders and the NFL are stepping up their support for racial justice.

Football fans who tuned in Thursday night to watch the season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans saw a very different NFL than a year ago. Inside Arrowhead stadium, the message “End Racism” was imprinted in one endzone, while the other displayed “It Takes All of Us.” Although not televised, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, played before the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Just before kickoff, players gathered midfield and locked arms to observe a moment of silence for racial equality.

It was a much different scene from 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. His gesture touched off a firestorm of controversy so politically charged that even presidents weighed in. Barack Obama defended Kaepernick, saying the issues deserved to be talked about, while Donald Trump said players who don’t stand for the anthem should be fired. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league believes “very strongly in patriotism” and that he didn’t necessarily agree with Kaepernick’s actions. Months later, Kaepernick was pushed out of the league.

That white-hot controversy flamed out this summer, eclipsed by a much bigger fire: the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, two unarmed black people who were killed by police. Worldwide protests and renewed calls to dismantle structural racism followed, suddenly putting Kaepernick on the right side of history. In June, Goodell released a video condemning racism and said the league was wrong for not listening to players’ protests. “I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country,” he said. “Without black players, there would be no National Football League.” He reiterated the commitment in September after Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man in Wisconsin, was shot in the back by police and paralyzed. The league has begun an Inspire Change foundation and pledged $250 million over 10 years for social justice causes.

The new messaging shifts the brand for the NFL, which has struggled with how to meet this moment. It’s a challenge shared across many businesses and organizations that are re-evaluating what they stand for as consumers demand shared values from the brands they patronize.

“Teams, and brands more generally, are part of culture. This is a culturally significant moment that requires teams and brands, just as it requires all of us who are a part of the culture, to adjust and to consider,” said Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams, whose research focuses on how emotions influence consumer behavior.

George Floyd’s death coalesced the movement around social justice and Black Lives Matter, and the teams are trying to respond, she said. But it’s more than just commercialism. Athletes are outspoken, and their voices are powerful.

“This is a culturally significant moment that requires teams and brands, just as it requires all of us who are a part of the culture, to adjust and to consider.” –Patti Williams

“In many ways, the line between an organization’s consumer-focused brand and its employer brand has been blurred,” Williams said. “Employees want to work for organizations that have values they can believe in and that are in line with their own values. The players, and others within these organizations, are forcing the teams/brands to publicly express these values or to live up to their earlier expressions of them.”

Kaepernick’s activism set the stage for the current context, which has grown beyond the football field. Williams said the issues of equality, justice and inclusion are resonating across the “broader brand ecosystem.”

“Stakeholders are raising these issues, speaking with passion about them and demanding change,” she said. “In many of these organizations, the leaders themselves have been shaken by these events. Perhaps they see the world differently and/or perhaps they see that they have a responsibility to actually lead on these issues.”

Corporate leaders are key drivers in this change, according to Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University and emeritus professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton. He said he’s spoken recently to many executives outside of the sports industry who have acknowledged that their initial public statements after Floyd’s death were inadequate. They want to do more to address injustice.

“Many are trying to get ahead of the curve and do the right thing … so that there won’t be a need to issue a statement about what they’re up to. One way to do that is to visibly engage with the athletes who physically engage with the leagues and visibly engage in social justice programs, and let the actions speak for themselves. I think that’s a lot of what’s going on,” Shropshire said during a recent segment of the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast above.)

In the NFL’s case, he noted, executives are taking more seriously the influence exerted by players such as Kaepernick, who sacrificed his football career for a cause now embraced by the league. He credited Goodell and others for admitting that they were wrong and changing course.

The highly visible stances of athletes like Kaepernick are “driving leadership of these companies and teams to re-evaluate where they stand — or frankly, in this world of being anti-racist, to be overt about where they stand,” Shropshire said.

“Many [leaders] are trying to get ahead of the curve and do the right thing.” –Kenneth Shropshire

The Greater Risk of Doing Nothing

Marketers know there is inherent risk in taking a stand on any issue that could alienate a sizable segment of customers. Hobby Lobby, for example, is facing a call for a boycott over a pro-Trump display in one of its stores. But in this era of deep social awareness, it can be riskier to do nothing.

“The most recent data I’ve seen suggests that a majority of consumers want to see marketers take stands on these issues,” Williams said, citing a new Edelman Survey that also found 77% of Americans say it’s important for corporations to respond to racial injustice to earn or keep their trust.

“There are always risks in staking out a strong position, and in today’s polarized climate, brands that take positions are likely to align themselves with one side, potentially alienating the other side,” she said. “But the nature of this moment, and this issue in particular, seems to require brands to step up. There is likely more risk — from consumers, employees and stakeholders — in inaction.”

She urged brands to be brave enough to pivot their marketing strategies to reflect the times, pointing to the Washington football team abandoning the Redskins name or Land O’Lakes butter dropping the Native American woman from its logo as examples. Speaking up and speaking out is the norm right now, not the exception.

“This the moment to make those changes. Brands shouldn’t be afraid,” she said.

But the moment has come too late for Kaepernick, who has not been signed to a team since opting out of his contract in March 2017.

“It’s sad for him and his career in the fact that he did not have the chance to get back out there and play,” Shropshire said. “But he can look back with some pride to say, ‘I was a big trigger in this,’ in a longer stream of the heritage of guys and women who have pushed on these issues.”

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