ESPN reported this week on a letter signed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Players Association Executive Director Michele Howard urging players to use their platforms to promote social change.
“None of us operates in a vacuum,” the letter said. “Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly. Fortunately, you are not only the world’s greatest basketball players — you have real power to make a difference in the world, and we want you know that the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference.”
No one missed the irony of this announcement against the backdrop of the NFL’s continued blackballing of Colin Kaepernick.
In a statement shared on Twitter by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett detailing an encounter with police in Vegas, Bennett said he was fearful of his life, and cited the incident as the reason for his (and other players’, including Kaepernick’s) protests — “because equality doesn’t live in this country, and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a ‘Nigger,’ you will be treated that way.”
Roger Goodell put out a statement of “support,” expressing concern for the safety of Bennett and his family, and saying “the issues Michael has been raising deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community.” It went on to say, “We will support Michael and all NFL players in promoting mutual respect for law enforcement and the communities they loyally serve and fair and equal treatment under the law.”
This statement is vastly different from the one put out by Silver and Howard on behalf of the NBA. It’s vague and noncommittal. It plays the middle. It fails to recognize the players’ humanity the way the NBA statement does, and there isn’t an actual indication of support for players’ right to protest, let alone an offer to help players best utilize their platform or encouragement.
But it makes sense. The NFL’s fans are older, richer and whiter than the NBA’s. In fact, the NBA represents the only major sports league in which white fans are in the minority. If the NBA were to take a stance similar to the NFL, they would likely lose fans.
Not only that, though, the NBA is more digitally savvy than the NFL, and surely watching the way the NFL has completely flubbed up race relations, particularly around this issue of player protests against police brutality and perpetual inequality in this country has been a case study for all marketers.
For the NFL, though, despite an announced boycott of the league by many who are dismayed Kaepernick has been ostracized for his protests, the league actually saw a 9% drop in viewership across the 2016-17 season, and many cited white fans being turned off by too much of a focus on “social issues” as the cause. Too much attention on racial injustice — attention which didn’t even come from the league office, but the players — may have alienated some of the league’s base.
You may remember the curious transformation of stance on racial issues Cam Newton took a few years ago:
January 2016: “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to.”
August 2016: “It’s not racism. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. I don’t want this to be about race, because it’s not. It’s not. Like, we’re beyond that. As a nation.”
We later discovered the Panthers had brought in GOP strategist Frank Luntz to coach Cam on how to speak — the same man who counsels Goodell on his public remarks. Because, the reality is, Luntz represents the people who the NFL considers its core audience. Or at least, he is more representative of that group than Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett.