Rebranding the NFL: How the league shifted its message on racial justice

Football fans who tuned in last week 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.”

Members of the 49ers football team kneeling on the field before a game.
Some members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the National Anthem before a game.

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, and 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.

The controversy flamed out this summer, eclipsed by 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. 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,” says 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 says. But it’s more than just commercialism. Athletes are outspoken, and their voices are powerful.

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.