NFL to Roll Out More Social Justice Messaging in 2021 Season

    • NFL will highlight 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' at all ‘tentpole’ events moving forward.
    • Jay-Z’s Roc Nation is still advising the league on its ‘Inspire Change’ initiative.

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The National Football League will introduce more social justice messaging on fields and player helmets during the upcoming 2021 season, following up on initial efforts from 2020.

“They’re bringing back a lot of elements from last year,” said a source.

To reinforce its 10-year, $250 million commitment to combat systemic racism, the league will promote social justice via on-field signage, decals on player helmets, and in-stadium PSAs.

The NFL also plans to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — often referred to as the Black national anthem — a prominent part of all big league events, said sources. They will likely highlight victims of racial injustice with a “Say Their Stories” project, as well.

In today’s hyper-partisan media environment, most fans experience football through the prism of television. This year’s renewed social justice messaging efforts will be visible to the 200 million-plus TV viewers who watch game telecasts each season.

In 2020, the league suffered its first regular-season TV audience downturn in three years. Schedule irregularities and postponements due to COVID-19 were a likely factor, though some propose that social justice messaging impacts viewership as well.

While the NFL leans in, other leagues are dialing back. The NBA, for example, has removed most of the social justice signs and messages that were prevalent on courts and player jerseys last season. Commissioner Adam Silver said those messages are being largely delivered off the floor.

Silver has said that the NBA’s messaging last season was in response to “an extraordinary moment in time” — the nationwide racial awakening last summer spurred by the murder of George Floyd in police custody — but that he anticipated “a return to normalcy” in 2021.

“I understand those people who say, ‘I’m on your side. But I want to watch a basketball game,’” Silver told ESPN last year.

Roughly 70% of NFL players are Black. Commissioner Roger Goodell himself has admitted that the league can’t afford to ignore their deep concerns about racial justice.

At the same time, the NFL lost $4 billion last year due to the coronavirus, with annual revenue slumping to $12 billion from $16 billion. NFL owners want to recoup those losses this season. Conservative owners would argue staying out of politics is a good place to start.

While the NFL declined to comment, sources said this year’s social justice initiative could be as big, if not bigger, than last season’s in terms of spend, resources, and overall commitment. 

The overarching theme for all of the league’s cause-marketing efforts this season will be: “It Takes All Of Us.” But in-stadium messaging will be more “targeted” this year — culminating with the “Inspire Change” theme during Weeks 17-18, said sources. 

The effort will kick off in the 2021 preseason, which starts Aug. 5. NFL end zones will include messages such as “End Racism” and “Inspire Change.” The campaign will move into high gear with the NFL Kickoff game.

Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be performed before the NFL Kickoff game between Tom Brady’s Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dak Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Sept. 9. 

The league’s TV partners typically only televise anthems before special games such as Opening Night or the Super Bowl. So expect viewers of the game telecast on NBC Sports to hear both “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The league wants to showcase the Black national anthem in all “tentpole events” moving forward, said another source. That will include the Super Bowl, NFL Playoffs, NFL Draft, and NFL Kickoff game.

So far this year, superstar singer Alicia Keys and The Cleveland All-City Choir performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before Super Bowl LV and the 2021 NFL Draft, respectively. 

Jay-Z’s Roc Nation is advising the league on the “Inspire Change” initiative. Roc Nation is also working with the league to provide high-profile performers for events like the NFL Kickoff and the Super Bowl.

Players free to protest: The league and its 32 teams will not hinder the ability of the league’s 1,700 players to take a knee or otherwise protest on field during the U.S. national anthem. The NFL does have a policy on the books, but no player has ever been disciplined for taking a knee.

Before the 2020 season, Goodell promised to support players who peacefully protest during the national anthem.

“We have never disciplined a single player for anything with the national anthem, in violation. And I don’t intend to. I will support,” Goodell told Emmanuel Acho on the “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” YouTube series.

Inspire Change: Weeks 17-18 will be themed “Inspire Change,” similar to other themed weeks such as “My Cause My Cleats,” “Crucial Catch” with the American Cancer Society, and “Play 60,” which encourages kids to be physically active for an hour each day. 

Look for the “Inspire Change” theme to be emblazoned on playing fields, goal post wraps, and end zone pylons. The league will also ask TV announcers to amplify the message during national and local telecasts.

Helmet Messages: NFL uniforms have been off-limits for any messaging besides the league’s “shield” logo and trademarks of uniform partners like Nike. But the league made a major change last year, inviting players to add decals bearing the names of victims of police violence like Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as messages like “Black Lives Matter,” to their helmets. The league’s looking to bring back helmet messages this year, but the plan has not been finalized, said sources.

9/11 Tribute: The bulk of the NFL’s Week 1 games kick off Sep. 12 — one day after the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Look for the league to salute 9/11 victims and first responders during Opening Weekend.

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Starting this May, the NFL began to highlight its quarter billion-dollar social justice effort via an “Inspire Change” content series. 

The “Inspire Change Explainer Essay,” for example, takes viewers through the process of why the league and its players are addressing social injustice around the country. Another vignette called “Where the Money Goes,” breaks down how funds are allocated. 

This coming Aug. 14 will mark the five-year anniversary of quarterback Colin Kaepernick protesting the national anthem during a preseason game. Since then the NFL has see-sawed in its support of protesting players. 

With former President Donald Trump calling for clubs to “fire” protesting players in 2017, powerful team owners like Jerry Jones of the Cowboys initially opposed the on-field protests. The NFL became a political football, with critics on both sides of the protest debate hammering the league.

Last year’s nationwide protests forced the NFL to rethink its position. On June 5, 2020, Goodell posted a mea culpa video admitting he and the league were “wrong” for not previously listening to its players.

“Without Black players, there would be no National Football League,” said Goodell.

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The controversy may have impacted the league’s TV ratings in recent years.

At the height of player protests during the 2016-17 seasons, the league’s once impregnable TV audiences plummeted 8% and 10% respectively.

As the protests receded, the NFL’s TV audiences bounced back to grow 5% apiece during the 2018-2019 seasons.

But average audiences fell 8% to 15.1 million viewers in 2020 as the league embraced social justice messaging on helmets, warm-up gear, fields and stadiums.

The NFL’s not the only sports league spending hundreds of millions of dollars to promote racial equality.

Last year, the NBA teamed with the National Basketball Players Association to launch the new NBA Foundation. The league’s Board of Governors are contributing $300 million over 10 years to create “greater economic empowerment in the Black community.”

The NBA and its players union also launched The National Basketball Social Justice Coalition to help dismantle systemic racial inequality.

On Monday, Major League Baseball announced a $150 million, 10-year commitment to increase Black representation in baseball.