During last night’s Super Bowl LIV, the National Football League aired a commercial it debuted last month during the AFC Championship Game. In the minute-long clip, the former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin speaks about his cousin Corey Jones, who was killed by a police officer in 2015. (At the time, Boldin was playing for the San Francisco 49ers, who lost Sunday to the Kansas City Chiefs, 20–31.) In a voiceover, Boldin explains what happened the night his cousin died; a re-creation is intercut with photos of Jones and emotional footage of family members.
“There are some things just bigger than football,” Boldin says. “Starting the Players Coalition and effecting change in this country was one of those things … Had it not been for the work that we do, Corey’s death would have been in vain.” It’s a jarring sentiment, uncomfortable in the way that invocations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “sacrifice” can be. Neither King nor Jones volunteered his life for the sake of others’ causes; both were killed.
With its palliative tone, the ad continues the NFL’s attempt to rebrand itself as a socially conscious organization via its “Inspire Change” initiative—all while avoiding any mention of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback whose anti-police-brutality protests earned the league’s ire beginning in 2016. In the NFL’s framing, its social-justice investments emerged from a serendipitous overlap between athletes’ respectful, off-field activism and team owners’ philanthropic benevolence. It’s an expedient and dishonest narrative for a league whose most valued cause has always been its own image.