The National Football League confirmed this week that it would continue to showcase political statements on the field as the 2021 regular season is set to kick off Thursday, September 9, when the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys.
The Associated Press reports, “NFL players can wear social justice messages on their helmets again this season and ‘It Takes All of Us’ and ‘End Racism’ will be stenciled in end zones for the second straight year as part of the league’s Inspire Change platform.” According to the outlet, “The league will also bring back the ‘Say Their Stories’ initiative and for the first time, each team will highlight its social justice work during a regular-season home game in Weeks 17 and 18.”
“The key message for us as the season is starting, we are ramping up again in a big way with our social justice work,” Anna Isaacson, NFL senior vice president of social responsibility, told the AP.
Players are permitted to wear helmet decals of six approved messages, including “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Inspire Change,” and “Say Their Stories.”
The league also reportedly plans to feature the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as “a prominent part of all big league events” this season, including the Super Bowl, NFL Playoffs, and NFL Kickoff game, according to Front Office Sports. The song, written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900, has been dubbed the “Black National Anthem.”
The AP provides more details:
The end zone stencils will be placed on field for all clubs in all home games, except when another cause is being recognized. For example, during a club’s Salute to Service game, “End Racism” will be replaced with “Salute To Service” in one end zone and “It Takes All of Us” will remain on the opposite side.
This year’s “Say Their Stories” features will again be voiced by NFL players but will evolve to include social justice heroes who have been personally identified by players for their impact in this area, particularly those from their local communities.
For the final two weeks of the regular season, all clubs will receive the relevant banners, goal post wraps, stencils, helmet decals and video board graphics. The elements will continue to be featured during playoff games.
The NFL says its Inspire Change initiative prioritizes education, economic advancement, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform.
“We are committed to Inspire Change and the social justice work that inspires change for the long-term,” said Isaacson.
Since the initiative launched during the 2018 season, more than $160 million in grants have been gifted to what the league describes as “social justice organizations.” Last year, the NFL announced an extended $250 million commitment over ten years “to help advance social justice.”
Recent history has shown that NFL viewership has declined when the league becomes a platform to promote social issues. Television executives said national anthem protests inspired by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 were a factor in a ratings dip that began that season, compounded by frequent criticism on social media from former President Donald Trump. The NFL experienced two seasons of ratings growth, then the audience for regular-season games shrank again in 2020 by about 7%. The presidential election, coronavirus pandemic, and reaction by some fans to the league’s social justice efforts were all believed to have contributed to the decline in viewership.
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