NFL and '49ers tread sensitive line over Kaepernick controversy

The NFL and San Francisco '49ers tried to appease both parties in the Colin Kaepernick national anthem row - while PR experts noted strong parallels with similar events in sporting history and the QB's First Amendment rights.

Colin Kaepernick drew fire this weekend for sitting during national anthem [Image: Facebook]
Colin Kaepernick drew fire this weekend for sitting during national anthem [Image: Facebook]

SAN FRANCISCO: The NFL again finds itself a centerpiece of controversy after San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat through the national anthem last Friday in protest at honoring "a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."

Since then, the NFL released a statement Saturday saying: "Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem."

The NFL’s VP of communications, Brian McCarthy, cleaved closely to that statement when contacted by PRWeek.

"Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the national anthem, which is part of every NFL game," McCarthy said, adding that NFL games and events always include "patriotic moments."

He noted the NFL was coming up on the 50th anniversary of its first USO trips and would also be announcing plans to commemorate 9/11 for its first Sunday game this year.

Similarly, the 49ers’ statement, issued over the weekend, reaffirmed its commitment to both the player and the national anthem:

"The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pregame ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem."

Neither the 49ers nor McCarthy mentioned racism.

"If I’m sitting in the communications chair there, I am doubling down on the NFL’s efforts to be a pioneer in upholding freedom, whether it’s the legacy of dedication to our troops, the Rooney rule, or recognizing its firsts in racial equality," said Marc Johnson, director of APCO Worldwide’s NYC office and global digital practice lead, via email.

"The NBA dealt with this in the early 90’s when [Denver Nuggets' player] Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem. Rather than fertilizing the issue with continued comment, [commissioner] David Stern made a statement that recognized his freedom to abstain, yet separated the league from his decision making. The issue subsided as time went on."

The league has been mired in a series of scandals involving domestic violence, such as the Ray Rice case, and an alleged cover-up of player concussions over the past two years.

Despite those controversies, support for the NFL hasn’t faltered. Revenue continues to reach new peaks, as the world’s richest sports league rakes in money through lucrative TV broadcast deals.

"Players have the opportunity, they are in front of media every day, and it’s their right to express their views, which we respect," McCarthy said. "We’ve long supported their right to express their views."

He dismissed suggestions the NFL was effectively putting the onus of responsibility on the players to lead the public dialogue: "We’ve had multiple cause marketing programs over the years on a variety of issues. Players have the opportunity to express their views on a wide variety of issues - and they’re not shy about doing so."

Asked if the NFL would create a campaign targeting racism, McCarthy said: "We’ve been working on a number of cause-related programs, as we do every off-season. We’ll continue to refine and be strategic and thoughtful about our conversation with our fans. That’ll continue."

PR pros weigh in

A deluge of mixed reactions over Kaepernick’s polarizing move may have drowned out the topic he wanted to raise awareness of in the first place.

"He did this with some inherent risk to start a dialogue — that’s what a lot of people are missing," said Howard Bragman, chairman and founder of Fifteen Minutes. "That’s what’s lost in this debate about whether he’s a hero or a traitor. We have to stop and listen. There’s a bigger message here."

Comparing the situation to the controversy over the Washington Redskins' name, Bragman said: "I get tired of white people telling people of color what they should feel. As a gay man, I’ve been told, ‘You shouldn’t feel this or they didn’t mean it that way.' We have to have this dialogue about race in America."

The Kaepernick incident draws natural comparisons to past sporting uproars, such as the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute in Mexico City and Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

Alan Taylor, ex-PR handler for Ali, weighed in: "He [Ali] lost plenty, but that was his right. And don’t forget, military draft was a law Ali disobeyed… until the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

"Colin [Kaepernick] decided he wants to make a statement for the oppressed and that's his constitutional right. Sitting for the national anthem may not be popular, but there is no rule or law governing that action.

"His teammates may disagree with him - or even silently agree with him. His actions are an expression of what he believes and since his actions caused no personal harm or injury to anyone, so be it."

Rick French, chairman and CEO of French|West|Vaughn, recalled Kaepernick being a "likeable free-thinker" when the firm signed him to an endorsement on behalf of a client three years ago.

He also noted the long historical context in which athletes made politically charged statements during an event. Other athletes have refused to stand for the national anthem, such as former Detroit Tigers MLB players Chet Lemon and Lou Whitaker, who did so for religious reasons as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

"Unless lawmakers decide to rewrite the First Amendment, Kaepernick is expressing his right to free speech, which neither team rules nor the NFL can do much to tamp down," French added. "It might consider for new players coming into the league using its annual Rookie Symposium to stress the importance of paying respect to the flag and the many generations of U.S. citizens who have fought to protect it."

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