Actions Speak Louder than Words: The NFL Continues to Fail Colin Kaepernick
Published on February 24, 2023, at 11:05 a.m.
by Olivia Esquivel.
In recent years, the NFL has been faced with numerous public relations crises. During the 2022-2023 season, it had to respond to serious injuries like Tua Tagovailoa’s concussions and Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest. The NFL has received praise for how it has dealt with Hamlin’s injury. It has continued to highlight Hamlin and his recovery months after the injury occurred. At the 2023 Super Bowl, the University of Cincinnati medical team that cared for him was featured on the field prior to the game, and Hamlin was prominently seated next to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Intelligencer magazine called the league “America’s best crisis management company” primarily because there is “always something” to deal with. While players and staff across the league are keeping PR professionals busy, some of the league-wide PR campaigns have missed the mark.
Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protests are largely considered to be the greatest scandal to hit the NFL. Its initial response to his actions was disappointing, to say the least. The NFL even created a policy that would allow for players who kneeled during the national anthem to be fined, but this was quickly reversed after public backlash. Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March of 2017 and has been a free agent ever since.
The NFL began to increase its DEI efforts in 2017 with the creation of the “Inspire Change” initiative. Jay-Z joined the campaign in an advisory role in 2019, and the business move was not received well by everyone. Fans called out the league for being performative and profiting from its DEI campaign.
However, the campaign has stuck around. If you turn on an NFL game today, you will see phrases like “End Racism” and “Stop Hate” on the back of helmets and in end zones. These have remained since 2020, despite receiving mixed reactions by the public. One Twitter user expressed his frustration, saying “One way to help end racism, NFL, would be to make Colin Kaepernick a hero for protesting police brutality and not a pariah for protesting police brutality.”
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the NFL once again contradicted itself. Roger Goodell released a video statement that said, “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.” This was a stark contrast to its lack of support for Kaepernick just a couple of years prior. It was clear who the message was referencing, and yet the league neglected to refer to Kaepernick by name.
According to an inside source in an NBC Sports article, there was “fake interest” expressed in bringing Kaepernick back to the league during this time. He has yet to receive any actual offers from an NFL team since he became a free agent. While the league has donated money to social justice funds, the fact that Kaepernick remains blacklisted from teams speaks volumes.
The NFL’s use of strong action words as a league-wide rebrand seems more like an empty promise than real activism. The donations that the league has made are a great step, but its PR surrounding race relations has essentially been focused on this singular campaign. The league has conflicting messages — it is attempting to correct its past mistakes while failing to fully take responsibility for them. The PR fallout from Colin Kaepernick should serve as a lesson for the NFL, but it has yet to fully recover.