Trying to Erase Colin Kaepernick from Madden NFL Could Turn into the NFL’s Chernobyl
Do you ever notice that there are certain people who never say Colin Kaepernick’s name? They talk around him. They talk about him. They react to the ongoing anti-police brutality protests he began in ways that move national news cycles, but they don’t say his name. Ever. He’s like Candyman. This selective silence was put under the microscope last Thursday when news broke that Kaepernick’s name had been edited out of the Big Sean verse on YG’s song “Big Bank” on the soundtrack to the Madden NFL 19 video game, which is produced by Electronic Arts (EA).
I took a closer look at Kaepernick’s treatment in Madden NFL and discovered that beginning in August 2016, shortly after he began his protest, EA began to remove him from certain aspects of the game by: (1) omitting mention of him from live commentary updates, (2) editing his name out of songs on the soundtracks, and (3) not allowing players to use Golden Tickets on him. Kaepernick-related content has been suppressed in Madden NFL 17, 18, and 19.
Elements of the story have been percolating in Madden NFL-focused media for some time, but the following tweet by @jeanclervil got Twitter riled up and sent the news mainstream:
As the news spread, the backlash was swift, with condemnation coming from YG and Big Sean, who were adamant in their support of Kaepernick and condemnation of the edit. For context, other edited language in the song was omitted for profanity, references to sexual activity, a racial slur, and drug use. Big Sean and others tweeted that Kaepernick’s name was being treated like a curse word.
Discussion of the event overshadowed the NFL preseason opener, which coincided with the kickoff of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s induction celebrations. It was a losing news cycle for the NFL and EA. The NFL has been silent, but EA issued the following statement, which included apologies to Kaepernick, YG, and Big Sean:
We made an unfortunate mistake with our Madden NFL soundtrack. Members of our team misunderstood the fact that while we don’t have rights to include Colin Kaepernick in the game, this doesn’t affect soundtracks. We messed up, and the edit should never have happened. We will make it right, with an update to Madden NFL 19 on August 6 that will include the reference again. We meant no disrespect, and we apologize to Colin, to YG and Big Sean, to the NFL, to all of their fans and our players for this mistake.
There is a lot going on in that second sentence. First of all, even if you were to accept that weak explanation about misunderstanding the rights, it would still reveal something incredibly unflattering: EA never considered how the Madden fans who support Kaepernick would feel about having him edited out of the song. They didn’t even consider how YG and Big Sean — the artists whose music they’re using — would react. This all reinforces an uncomfortable truth: these people don’t matter. If they registered as important to EA, this decision would never have been made. If the company had thought this through even a little, they would have just chosen another song. And let’s not forget that erasing Kaepernick placates a specific subset of fans. Avatars of predominantly Black athletes can be used to entertain them, as can the music of Black rappers, so long as they keep quiet about racial injustice in America.
In addition, intellectual property rights aren’t something EA blundered into like a babe in the woods with Madden NFL 19. Licensing the underlying IP they use to produce Madden NFL and other games is the most important hurdle they have to clear to get the games produced. Mentioning a famous person in a song lyric doesn’t infringe their intellectual property rights, and EA should know that. It seems doubtful that EA edited out the names of other celebrities it doesn’t have the rights to in other songs on its game soundtracks. Is it possible that the company, its lawyers, and outside counsel got such a basic point of IP law wrong? Well, anything’s possible. It doesn’t seem like that’s what happened, though. Not when you take into account the receipts Private Investigator Twitter began to share. It turns out Kaepernick’s name was also edited out of a song on Madden NFL 18, when EA did have the rights to include him in the game.
EA’s story doesn’t add up.
There’s more, though. To fully understand Kaepernick’s erasure, we have to enter the world of MUT.
Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) incorporates Fantasy Football elements into the game and allows players to build their own teams. Ultimate Team mode is available in all of EA’s sports games. The most important thing you need to know about Ultimate Team is that it is incredibly lucrative. The microtransactions driving the Ultimate Team marketplaces are hugely important to EA. So much so that a Wall Street analyst warned, “If not for Ultimate Team growth, EA would likely be looking at a significantly down earnings per share year in fiscal year 2018.” EA’s heavy reliance on Ultimate Team led the analyst to describe the company as “one-dimensional.” Nevertheless, EA’s stock is booming, and that’s all down to Ultimate Team. I share all this so the unfamiliar understand: MUT is not some throwaway feature on Madden NFL. It is more important to EA than the game it piggybacks on top of. This means decisions about major changes to MUT are not made lightly.
Kaepernick has been excluded from the Golden Ticket component of MUT in Madden NFL 18. A Golden Ticket is an incredibly rare, highly coveted MUT reward that allows Madden NFL players to select an NFL player in the game and create a card of him with a 99 overall rating. A customized card with a 99 overall rating is the Holy Grail. When the Golden Ticket promotion launches, the whole MUT community is laser-focused on the event, and when a Golden Ticket is pulled, and the winner confirms what NFL player they plan to use, the news spreads like wildfire.
During the Golden Ticket promotion in May of this year, it was widely reported in MUT-focused forums, YouTube channels, and social media that a Golden Ticket winner had confirmed that they planned to use Kaepernick to make their card. After the news broke, EA emailed Golden Ticket winners and announced a new rule that didn’t make sense to diehard MUT fans. Golden Ticket winners had to select a player that was on a current NFL roster. The fantasy component of MUT was intended to allow players to put together teams using NFL players from different eras, and free agents (as Kaepernick is listed in the game) had been included in the past. So, why was this new limitation for Golden Tickets created when it was so at odds with the ethos of MUT? The only theory that made sense was that the new rule was implemented to prevent the winner from using their Golden Ticket on Kaepernick, who didn’t play in 2017 and wasn’t on a current roster. Kaepernick still having a silver card in the game made the decision look even more off-kilter.
The argument that the new rule was put in place specifically to exclude Kaepernick was strengthened when the Community Golden Ticket (that MUT players voted on) was used to upgrade Lamar Jackson, a rookie who hadn’t played in 2017 either and wasn’t on a current roster. If the rule had been applied evenhandedly, Jackson wouldn’t have been included in the voting options. Combined with the news that Kaepernick’s name was edited out of a song on the soundtrack, it seems as if a concerted effort was made to suppress Kaepernick’s visibility in the game.
Kaepernick has been excluded from Madden NFL in another way that is particularly damning.
One of the features in Madden NFL is live commentary updates. Sports commentators record weekly updates of recent, mostly NFL-related news that are then embedded into the game commentary. According to Sports Gamers Online, there is no mention of Kaepernick or his protest in any of the live commentary updates in Madden NFL 18.
The plot thickens even more. Back in August 2016, shortly after Kaepernick began his protest, an EA spokesperson confirmed the following to Gamespot: “Kaepernick’s decision will be briefly mentioned in-game, reflecting our commitment to authenticity in Madden NFL 17.” The promised “authentic” commentary never materialized, and EA fell silent on the matter. Who or what changed EA’s mind?
We have now gone all the way back to Madden NFL 17. This is the third version of the game where we now know Kaepernick-related content was suppressed.
Kaepernick has been at the center of one of the biggest stories in sports and politics for two years, and there wasn’t even an oblique mention in Madden NFL’s live updates about him being “controversial” or “polarizing” or whatever euphemism EA felt might be most fitting. EA not including even a single peep about the most talked about story in the NFL for two years after a company spokesperson announced they would looks an awful lot like a gag order is being enforced.
Where Kaepernick being excluded from the soundtracks and MUT Golden Tickets were discrete events, his omission from the live commentary updates was and continues to be ongoing. Every time he was in the news (which was often) and wasn’t mentioned in that week’s live update, EA made a conscious decision to deviate from its promise to provide “authenticity” in the game.
Kaepernick has been cut out of three editions of Madden NFL using three different methods that we know of. It’s beyond insulting to ask any sensible person to believe that this is a mistake.
It is fair to ask whether or not EA was acting on the NFL’s instructions when it erased Kaepernick from certain aspects of Madden NFL. EA has an exclusive license from the NFL to produce video games using the leagues’ trademarks, logos, and other intellectual property. The games are considered official NFL merchandise. In exchange for the license, EA gives the NFL huge sums of money and the equivalent of final cut on Madden NFL. Nothing the league doesn’t want in the game is getting in.
EA’s connection to the NFL was strengthened even further when they joined forces to bring E-Sports programming to ESPN and other Disney properties. The first major exclusive broadcasts negotiated were for the EA Sports Madden NFL 18 Championship Series. I’d be interested to know if any rules similar to the Kaepernick-targeted MUT Golden Ticket stipulation applied to the tournament.
This is all a lot to digest, but it supports the allegations in Kaepernick’s collusion grievance. He is considered a starting caliber quarterback by NFL teams, yet he isn’t on a roster. Now we also have to consider the orchestrated manner in which he’s being erased from Madden NFL. The NFL controls the biggest stage Kaepernick could be on: playing in nationally televised NFL games. Its exclusive license gives the league incredible leverage over EA, leverage that it is well-known to exercise heavy-handedly. The logical explanation for everything that’s happened is that Kaepernick is being blackballed, and the NFL is using its influence to keep him out of the limelight in Madden NFL. I don’t know how much longer some people will insist on scorching their hands on searing doorknobs and being overcome by smoke inhalation before they’re willing to admit that, yes, there is a fire.
The revelations of the past few days indicate that Madden NFL is the unlikely place where Kaepernick may prove the NFL is acting with malice towards him. The effort to silence and erase him will have left a trail.
The ultimate irony is that the fear of Kaepernick and his protest has driven the NFL to create an existential threat to the league. A finding that the NFL colluded against Kaepernick (which is looking more likely) would be evidence that the league violated federal antitrust laws — potentially felonious behavior that could see the league’s antitrust exemption revoked by Congress. In its attempt to punish Kaepernick, the NFL may have put its entire business model at risk. Here’s the kicker: they may pull the other major sports leagues down with them too.
The NFL’s Handling of the Kaepernick Situation Could Blow up American Sports
The people running the NFL aren’t any smarter than you or me. They’ve managed to maneuver themselves next to a machine…
The NFL has made colossal miscalculations in its handling of Kaepernick and his protest, the most important of which have been the attempts to silence and erase him. He’s already written into history. It was futile. It was also the flashing neon sign that the NFL was probably colluding against him. Imagine: micromanaging the content of a video game may be the thing that opened the floodgates of evidence against the league. Other rocks will surely be turned over.
Given that the suppression of Kaepernick-related Madden NFL content began in 2016, shortly after Kaepernick started his protest and before it became a major international news story, the chances of a damning email or twenty turning up are quite high. Should that occur, the worst case scenario for the NFL is Chernobyl levels of bad, and I think they’re finally beginning to realize it.