The slickly produced ad, which has been on television throughout the NFL playoffs, packs a lot into a minute. Viewers see a reenactment of the fateful night, the grief of Jones’s family, and Boldin’s explanation that his cousin’s death inspired him to take a stronger interest in social justice. The commercial is part of the league’s “Inspire Change” campaign, an initiative that lets current and former players receive grants for their causes as determined by a committee made up of players and team owners. If you believe a Jan. 7 news release, the NFL began spending money to fight social injustice in April 2018.
It would prefer that no one bring up anything that happened before then.
Inspire Change is a shameless strategy for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s owners to pretend that they not only supported the movement to bring attention to police violence and systemic oppression all along, but that they were really the progenitors of the whole idea. Any player who accepts the deal on these rotten terms is welcome. The painfully obvious tell is that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is nowhere to be found — not in the Inspire Change materials, not as part of the Players Coalition, of which Boldin is a co-founder, and not on an NFL roster, as his former team plays the Kansas City Chiefs for the title Sunday.
This is how the NFL handles social pressures it sees as potentially fraught. The league can always be trusted to pounce on a sincere effort to raise awareness of an issue, then fine-tune and focus-group it until the corporate-friendly result barely resembles its original form.
The movement that eventually struck such fear into the NFL began with a clear reason. Kaepernick, who started refusing to stand for the national anthem during the 2016 preseason, was outspoken about his cause: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL Media reporter Steve Wyche, the day after the public noticed. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Since then, the quarterback’s intent has been contorted and bastardized in various ways. For the NFL, the issue turned from a public relations nuisance into a crisis in September 2017, when President Trump started tweeting about it and said at a rally that anyone who dared to demonstrate (a small group at that point) was a “son of a bitch” who should be fired by his team’s owner. The players reacted the following Sunday by demonstrating in far larger numbers.
Although most of the protests by Kaepernick’s colleagues that weekend appeared to be sincere reactions to Trump, one particularly cynical example involved Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, locked in arms with two players, smirking directly at the camera as the team knelt before the national anthem even played, rendering the purpose moot. Was Jones doing that in solidarity with unarmed black people who were shot by the police, or to satisfy his own Texas-size ego and show that any protest would be done solely on his terms?
Then there’s the aforementioned Players Coalition, founded in February 2017 by Boldin and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. The group had a falling out with Kaepernick, his former teammate Eric Reid and a few other players in November 2017 over a stark difference of opinion in priorities: The coalition felt it could receive a lot of financial support from the owners for their causes, but the faction saw the NFL’s offer as hush money to end the protests and stop making noise about Kaepernick’s unemployment. (Kaepernick hasn’t played since the 49ers season ended in 2017; he hasn’t been signed to a new contract, apparently because of a leaguewide decision to blackball him.) Eventually, Jenkins removed Reid and Kaepernick from the group’s communications. After Reid signed with the Carolina Panthers, he characterized the Players Coalition as “an NFL-funded subversion group” and called out Jenkins as a “sellout” and “neocolonialist” for agreeing to the partnership.
The NFL tried a different tactic in the 2018 offseason when it realized money would not extinguish all the players’ protests. That May, Goodell announced a new anthem policy, drafted without consulting the players union, that declared “all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” or otherwise stay in the locker room until it was over. If not, their clubs would be fined. The message was pure cowardice: Feel free to protest, as long as you do it where no one can see it. Because of the widespread negative reaction, the policy was scrapped months later and never enforced during the season.
As you might expect for the professional executives of such a carefully regimented sport, the NFL has a playbook for handling player activism. For years, the league was committed to promoting Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, with pink splashed on seemingly every part of the football field, including coaches’ gear, goal post padding and cheerleader pompoms. Former running back DeAngelo Williams, whose mother and four aunts died of the disease, asked the NFL if he could wear pink for the whole 2015 season, not just during October. His request was denied, because that would have been a violation of the uniform code. But the league had no problem making Williams the focus of a 30-second “Football Is Family” ad highlighting how much it cares about stories like his.
When the NFL was in a crisis in 2014 after a spate of players, most notably then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, were charged with domestic violence and assault, it partnered with a group called No More to do something about its image problem. It gradually became evident that No More had no clearly defined purpose other than to sell merchandise with a special logo on it and facilitate an ad that had Eli Manning stare into a camera and try his best to look stern as he said, “No more.” The follow-up ad, which aired during Super Bowl XLIX, featured 60 seconds of scenes from an empty but ominous household set to a tense 911 call. Sounds familiar.
Inspire Change is the same thing: The NFL is sanitizing real stories to make them more beneficial to its own brand. The death of Jones shouldn’t be minimized, and Boldin’s pain is genuine, but that’s exactly why the league wants to use it — or more accurately, to co-opt it. The league’s campaign becomes a defense against any claims of cynicism, but meanwhile, the catalyst for this entire pursuit has been erased.
Four years after Kaepernick sat during the anthem to protest police brutality and oppression of people of color, he still has not been signed by a team, even though many statistically worse quarterbacks have received opportunities, and the league settled a collusion lawsuit with him. The NFL tried to set up a session for him to work out for scouts in the fall, but that fell apart over a disagreement between the league and Kaepernick’s representatives, who said the NFL was making unreasonable demands. The league has essentially made his name verboten and ignored what it perceives to be his imperfect protest, instead finding a different player’s story because it’s more marketable and won’t raise the ire of the dimmest, most disingenuous segment of professional football fans, including the one with 71 million Twitter followers and the ability to make Republicans threaten a boycott, even if they don’t actually carry it out. Tweak the message enough times, and it’s like the NFL cared all along.