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NFL’s Botham Jean Ad Brings Backlash

2 min read

One ad timed for the Super Bowl but not shown during the celebrated annual ad blitz was a National Football League public service announcement featuring an Arkansas university graduate who was murdered in his own apartment by a confused Dallas police officer in 2018.

The ad on Harding University alumnus Botham Jean was rolled out the week ahead of the game, drawing some praise for the NFL but also a charge of cynically promoting its “Inspire Change” initiative after sanctioning former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality.

At the time of Jean’s death, the 26-year-old PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant was watching football and eating ice cream. Officer Amber Guyger, who lived in the apartment directly upstairs from Jean’s, said she entered his apartment by mistake, thinking it was hers, and shot and killed Jean after mistaking him for a burglar.

The PSA gives voice to Jean’s family members, who tell his story powerfully, asking for a change in attitudes.

Advertising pros like Brooke Vines of Vines Brookshire and Kama Johnson of Waymack & Crew called it important for the league to engage on social justice issues, but other Arkansans saw the ad as “paying lip service to this cause.”

Adena White, board member and immediate past president of the Arkansas Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, accused the NFL of inconsistency. “Because the NFL maintains its policy that league and team personnel must ‘stand and show respect for the flag and anthem’” or face fines, she said, the heartfelt ad had more than a whiff of insincerity.

“The policy makes it clear that the League still considers this act of protest as a sign of disrespect to the flag and anthem, failing to acknowledge the true reason Kaepernick took a knee,” White said in response to questions from Arkansas Business.

In a statement, the NFL said it was “aware of the challenges we’ve faced over the last few years,” but added it now has “the opportunity to help create positive change.”

“The PSA itself is touching, and Botham Jean’s story deserves to be told,” White responded. “However, the NFL’s decision to feature Jean’s story — one that involves a victim with impeccable character, an officer who was actually convicted, and a grieving brother who forgave the officer with a hug — combined with its own policy on kneeling, underscores how phony the campaign appears.”

The NFL’s bid to inspire change, she concluded, “appears to be less about changing structural racism and police brutality and more about changing its own image.”

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