Despite having some success on the field, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is best known for being the personality at the center of the Anthem Kneeling Protest, which sparked a maelstrom of conflicting PR narratives across multiple professional football seasons, eventually spilling over into the political spectrum.
Bowing to fan uproar over the protests at the time, the NFL forbade the activity, cautioning players there would be consequences if the protests continued. Kaepernick, along with another NFL player, Eric Reid, became touchstones for a wider protest. Both lost their jobs. Reid was later resigned by another team, but Kaepernick remained outside football. A largely protest-free season came and went, but now, with new protests across the country, many big brands are speaking out about social issues. Few expected the NFL to be one of those brands.
Now, the NFL has come out, publicly apologizing for “not listening” to players concerned about racism. A recent video statement by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell grabbed headlines: “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest … We believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country …”
According to certain media sources, this statement was in direct response to a group of NFL players who asked the league to make a statement in the wake of recent public protests. As part of that request, the players asked the league to “listen to your players,” followed by this blunt question: “We will not be silent … What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality?”
In response, Goodell vowed to continue the dialogue with players in order to discuss“how we can improve … for a better and more united NFL family …”
Many players were active on the league’s Twitter account in response to the video, but one who drew a great deal of attention was Reid, one of the first players to initially kneel in protest with Kaepernick. Putting the focus on the elephant in the room, Reid challenged the NFL to make a statement about the future of his friend in the NFL:
“I have Kaepernick’s phone number if y’all need it. It’s time he is employed. How long will the NFL say they are listening and willing to be at the forefront of change but continue to exile him … Let’s call this what it is … PR.”
These comments bolster the point made by Joe Lockhart, former executive VP of Communications and Government at the NFL during the protest PR crisis. Lockhart on May 30 wrote an editorial published online by CNN arguing that “now is the moment to sign Colin Kaepernick ...” In the same piece, Lockhart argued that, back during the protest controversy, “no teams wanted to sign (Kaepernick) because they saw (him) as bad for business …”
Kaepernick’s camp called that idea “nonsense,” saying the NFL was kowtowing when league officials claimed to be speaking out on behalf of the quarterback. Given the timing and nature of these statements, it’s likely this is an evolving story, and it’ll be interesting to see how each side chooses to navigate the issue.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, which was named “2020 PR Agency of Year” by the American Business Awards.