The NFL’s Latest PSAs Are a Hail Mary for Fixing Its Brand Image

Time will tell if it’s genuine or not, though

A black and white photo of Botham Jean
Does the NFL have any true values, or is it just a warring group of owners that are trying to maximize profits? Botham Jean Foundation
Headshot of Brian Sheehan

The NFL’s recent public service ads are a stark contrast from the NFL’s position just three years ago.

Back in 2016-2017, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest the oppression of people of color in America, largely executed by police organizations around the country, the NFL was appalled. It basically drummed Kaepernick out of the league and had the dubious distinction of appearing to be in full agreement with Donald Trump on issues of race. That the crux of the issue was less about Kaepernick’s opinions and more about whether the NFL would support his right to free speech (or in this case, free action) made the NFL doubly despised in many quarters, not least of which was with their players, who are comprised mostly of people of color.

They are an announcement that the NFL is apologizing for its past behavior and is trying to do something to make things better.

Fast-forward to January 2020. The NFL is now running ads as part of their new partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation that embraces discussions of police violence against black men. The ads feature the cases of Botham Jean, the unarmed man who was shot in his own home by an off-duty police officer, and the story of NFL player Anquan Boldin’s cousin Corey Jones, who was gunned down by a plain-clothes officer after his car had broken down. The core message of these ads is about change, ending with the words: “We need to do more to create change.”

The implication is clear. These are not just public service advertisements to tell society to effect change. They are an announcement that the NFL is apologizing for its past behavior and is trying to do something to make things better. It is important to remember that Jay-Z took serious flack in the black community for working with the NFL, given their previous insensitivity and intransigence.

Should the NFL be sincere, this could be a major turning point for them. It will indicate a meaningful change of attitude. Should they not be sincere, should this just be a sop to the players union, then it will be the height of hypocrisy. That would seem unlikely, but under the leadership of Roger Goodell, the NFL has made myriad missteps when it comes to issues of race, domestic violence and player safety. While they were working with Jay Z, they even fumbled the Colin Kaepernick workout for teams a few months back.

The question is: Does the NFL have any true values, or is it just a warring group of owners that are trying to maximize profits? Time will tell. If they get it wrong, there will be no coming back.


Brian Sheehan is a professor of advertising at Syracuse University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.
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