Spring cleaning is on the horizon, and it appears the NFL got a head start by using this year’s Super Bowl to sweep some of its biggest issues under the rug.
Years removed from the NFL’s near-universal shunning of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (which resulted in a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2019), the league has a new crop of concerns to deal with.
But fear not, NFL.
From a marketing perspective, the Super Bowl has become an annual testimony to the wonders that a powerful legal team and massive ad budget can afford you, no matter the public relations fiasco you're in. If not for those factors, the NFL would have a hard time pretending it's not the most obnoxiously conservative sports league in the country.
Last year seemed like a test run in gaslighting, and this year felt like deja vu. On Sunday, we got the customary Black national anthem to kick off the game. We got a rousing performance from Rihanna (who apparently decided she’s not against the NFL after all) framed as a tribute to Black women empowerment. We got an appearance by Hall of Famer Doug Williams (the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl). We also saw the first all-female pilot team conduct a flyover before a Super Bowl.
All of these things are well and good in a vacuum, but they seem like minimal plays for relevance and acceptance from an organization that stands accused of marginalizing its nonwhite and nonmale employees.
Watching Sunday, for example, you’d have virtually no idea the league is fighting a discrimination lawsuit filed by Black coaches who allege they’ve been denied a fair shake at employment by the league’s mostly white owners. And you could have easily overlooked the fact the league has been accused of covering up years of sexual workplace misconduct within the Washington Commanders organization. (The NFL and the Washington Commanders have denied those allegations.)
In light of that, I found the league’s undeniably fun commercial promoting women and flag football to be pretty eye-opening.
“To the women pushing football forward, we can’t wait to see where you take this game,” the ad stated.
One wonders how this landed with the women accusing the league of misconduct. It also seems worth noting that the NFL’s emphasis on flag football may very well be a response to recent criticism about the brutality of tackle football and the league’s seeming indifference to the sport’s long-term health consequences. I guess there wasn’t room for all that in the commercial.
The NFL and its ongoing popularity is indicative of a nagging problem: Americans can be notoriously fickle with their activism for social justice. And while the NFL’s issues have been reported far and wide, it seems there are many people ready and willing to memory-hole those issues when the big game comes around.