The NFL is wading back into controversial territory with a new Super Bowl ad addressing police shootings of black Americans.
The 30-second spot, which stars retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin, re-enacts the October 18, 2015 death of Boldin’s late cousin, Corey Jones.
Boldin’s cousin was shot by former police officer Nouman Raja in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Raja, who was later found guilty of manslaughter and attempted murder in Jones’s death, was sentenced to 25 years in prison last year.
“I’ll never forget that night,” Boldin says during the video. “My wife walks up after the game and told me that my cousin, Corey, had been killed.”
When Jones was shot, Boldin was playing in an NFL game – catching passes from former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick brought significant attention to the issue of police brutality in 2016 by kneeling in protest against it during the National Anthem. Other NFL players, and eventually athletes around the world, began protesting in solidarity. In response, the NFL created a rule requiring players to stand during the Anthem or risk being fined in May of 2018.
But the league ultimately decided against punishing players for protesting during the Anthem and signed a $90 million deal with the Players Coalition, a nonprofit charitable group formed in 2015, to fund the athletes’ civic efforts across the country.
The protests – and the NFL’s reaction to them – garnered a firestorm of criticism. Now some experts question whether the league risks reigniting the controversy with some fans, including those who have boycotted in recent years at the behest of President Donald Trump.
The new ad is a promotion for the league’s Inspire Change initiative, a program created to address athletes’ social justice causes in their home communities. It is designed to serve as conversation starters for football fans, according to NFL chief marketing officer Tim Ellis.
“We felt it was important to clearly define for our fans what Inspire Change is, the work that our players are doing in support of social justice, and what inspired Anquan – who has been one of the players at the forefront of this work – to get involved with these efforts,” Ellis wrote in an emailed statement to CNN Business.
The commercial debuted Sunday during the AFC Championship game, but will re-air during Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, February 2. Another commercial, released online Wednesday, is a longer spot, telling the story of the late Botham Jean, the unarmed 26-year-old accountant who was fatally shot by a Dallas police officer in his own home in September 2018.
Risk vs. reward
Showing the Boldin ad on Super Bowl Sunday is a risky but potentially shrewd move said Donald Lehmann, professor of business marketing at Columbia Business School. It could reignite an anti-NFL social media firestorm among some conservative fans, but it could also pay dividends down the road with more sympathetic fans.
“It makes the brand look pretty good,” said Lehmann. “They didn’t over hype the issue, which will appeal to moderate people. … It’s a very measured ad. I give them credit for that.”
Both the NFL ads and Inspire Change could give the league a reputational boost, according to Helio Fred Garcia, the president of Logos Consulting Group, who teaches crisis communications at New York University.
“This is far more artfully done than I would have expected from the NFL,” Garcia said. “The NFL has not been very adept at dealing with controversies.”
Patrick Yoes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 800,000 officers across the United States, said he applauded NFL players for their “constructive” approach to police shootings. But he said the Boldin ad mischaracterizes how police typically interact with their communities.
“It’s a tragedy all the way around,” Yoes said of Boldin’s story. “This one incident that’s identified [in the ad] makes it appear law enforcement is something other than what it is. That one instance does not define who [police officers] are as a profession.”
Some local police union members have made public statements denouncing the players’ kneeling protests in the past, but Yoes said his organization and its members have no plans take action or speak out against the NFL in response to its new campaign.
“We want to be part of the solution,” he said.
Social justice activists largely praised the commercials.
Several groups joined forces in 2017 to form the United We Stand coalition, which called for a boycott of the NFL and its sponsors until Kaepernick once again works for the NFL. Kaepernick settled a collusion lawsuit against the league in February 2019, but hasn’t played for the last three seasons.
“The ads are certainly thought provoking,” said Tamika Mallory, founder of Until Freedom, a social justice organization, and who also co-founded the inaugural Women’s March in 2017. “It is extremely important they reach an audience outside of the communities being impacted by police violence.”
Many have argued Kaepernick and the Anthem protests contributed to the NFL’s ratings decline in 2016 and 2017, but viewership has risen the last two years even as the protests and the Kaepernick saga have continued.
“The skeptic in me says this [Inspire Change] effort is trying to focus attention away from Kaepernick,” said Helio Fred Garcia, president of the Logos Consulting Group, who teaches crisis communications at New York University. “The less skeptical side says, at least they’re making a difference in a public discussion that needs to happen and has been mishandled so many times.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story provided the wrong name of Boldin's cousin who was shot and killed by a police officer