Or, is it?
Sorry, but the NFL is not gay. It is not transgender. It is not any of the words it claims to be in the spot. The NFL is a rather an American sports brand, with limited affiliation to the LGBTQ+ community.
What is the NFL? It is the host of the one day people watch ads. It sits as an unwilling participant at the center of a fierce discourse on the American flag, and a player’s right to challenge it. It is part of the old guard of America, and many fans, with less-than-progressive views, don’t want it to change. It is a Sunday tradition, just behind church, for many people, including those who think gay is a putdown.
Yet, there is only one NFL. Only one end goal for the masses who begin their football career on the pee-wee field, in hopes of making it professionally. It is the finish line for dreams. It is what motivates a 6 am workout in the summer, when everyone else is sleeping in. It’s the incentive for extra gym time, or being the last one off the field. It is the sacrifice for the ultimate validation, getting paid to compete in a sport you love.
To claim your organization is anything by simply putting type on screen is hardly a proof point. But it’s also really hard not to give someone (even a brand) a chance to be a better version of themselves. And this was truly an unexpected moment in a history of corporate expectedness, regardless of whether it leads anywhere or not.
I don’t watch football.
I should probably disclose that. I stopped back in the Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw days as a 8-year-old Steeler fan. I can name maybe 3 players out of the 1700 that Google tells me are in the league. And out of those players, one active player has come out as gay. None as transgender. So making the claim that the league is gay, well, it’s without merit.
Statistically, for those dreamers who have made it to NCAA football, only 1.6 % percent will make it to the NFL. And if we look at the one gay man vs the entire league, it is a 1.7 % chance that a NFL player is gay.
Judging by those numbers, the NFL’s claim is probably as far away from statistically being gay as possible. But I’m hoping that may change with this message of inclusion.
Gay As A Putdown?
If you know anything about advertising, there is something called a misdirect. You lead the viewer one way, and something different appears. If I were to critique this ad, it would be the seemingly sophomoric use of the word gay. And it has me a bit disturbed, as if they are using gay as a provocative insult, to get your attention. What, the NFL is gay? Let me watch this thing.
I guess in their defense, they didn’t bury the lead.
But even hinting at gay as an insult is not the way to go, especially since we don’t understand intent with white words on a black background. And gay as a putdown, that shit happens all the time. When I was a teen, I was told my pink shirt was gay. A sports team is gay to a fan of a rival. And of course, sharing feelings is gay. Some probably think even writing this is gay. I could go on. But we’ve all either heard them or said them.
But after the ad proclaims to be gay, it turns the corner, and tries to be more inclusive with other terms (lesbian, transgender, etc.). Then, you realize the inclusivity of the message. Yet, I worry the message was somewhat lost by the need to be clever with it.
Now, for many fans (especially on twitter), it has become a woke virtue signal. And although there may be some truth to that, their position is quite clear.
Don’t fuck with gay players in our league, because we’ve got their back.
Which, is awesome.
Brands And Their Lane
I used to get angry at brands who got involved with social issues that were not part of their DNA. Who stepped up to the plate only at pride month, and then moved on. But recently, I have become a bit less cynical and more accepting. That occurred recently while watching 42, seeing Jackie Robinson shake hands with the racist Phillies Manager for a photo op.
The manager was still racist, and Jackie knew that. Yet he also saw the opportunity to send a message through every newspaper in the country. And that message was anyone can change, even the ones seemingly beyond healing. We all know that’s not exactly true, but the optics around it was enough for Jackie to put his personal feelings aside for the greater good of baseball, and the players of color who would follow in his graceful footsteps. It was a moment of veneered acceptance the world will never forget.
Thinking this through, the NFL is in a very similar situation. I can’t think of a historically, less-likely brand to so emphatically take such an inclusionary stand (unless maybe NASCAR), and not just bury it in a corporate coms section of their website.
So, when you consider the source, who they are says more than even what they say. And if professional football can accept the beautiful new world where love comes in all forms, presumably, so can others.
For the NFL, this was probably the toughest call next to the flag kneeling.
They know their fans, and even their players. So it follows that their position would alienate a huge portion of their fanbase who disapproves of anything but traditional love, and gender roles. And these words do not just alienate, but force them to choose. Football is a Sunday tradition as big as church. And reconciling a fan’s beliefs, with what is being said in church and what is being said on the gridiron, will present itself as a character-defining moment.
I am hoping some have the courage to rise to the occasion.
So good on the NFL, regardless if I question their methods. Money is always the final arbiter for many brands. That’s why only the most progressive ones will go public with statements on social issues. They argue that by not saying anything, they will not lose the buying power of a group who thinks different. And let’s face it, many brands like to show safe, traditional gender roles in their ads because that is what some people expect. The middle. The uncomplicated world where men drive. Where women take care of kids. The dusty gender roles are alive and well in the world of advertising.
People become what they see.
Brands have a say in how they present our contemporary world. So as much as I want to troll on the NFL for coming to the pride party so fashionably late, I do admire them for showing up.
I’ve worked on big brands in a similar capacity. And from my experience, don’t think this was an easy decision. And I am sure many are second guessing, even now. I am positive there were silent objections, probably even loud ones. Not just in the boardroom, but in the locker room as well. In the end, the good of people won over the good of the dollar. At least, that’s the score at the end of the first quarter.
I am not sure if this decision will ultimately make it easier for others to come out. Especially, since I can’t imagine what carrying that weight is like. But I do applaud Carl Nassib for having the bravery to be the first active player through the doors. I hope others can follow, and live their truth as they play the game they love, not having to hide who they are inside.
And in turn, brave players can present the wildly diverse and exciting world we live in to others on their journey, whether they dream of professional sports or a high school locker room where bullying is stamped out.
We all want a society where people can be themselves, and love themselves for it. And whenever that can be shown on such a high-profile stage, it’s a win. The world will be watching. And learning. And hopefully, accepting.
So if the NFL is gay, I’m all for it. Maybe I’ll even start tuning in. But fan or not, no matter who is on the field, love will always win.