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Brand WTF of the Week: EA Sports cuts Kaepernick out of Madden 19

The gaming company broke one of the golden rules of brand loyalty: Know your audience.

Brand WTF of the Week: EA Sports cuts Kaepernick out of Madden 19
[Photo: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images]

This week EA Sports celebrated the initial release of Madden 19, the latest edition of its long-running NFL video game franchise. The brand marked the occasion with a fun, celebrity-filled ad. Culture, however, has a way of finding its own narrative.

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Not long after its release, fans noticed that a song on the soundtrack had Colin Kaepernick’s name blanked out as if it was a curse word.

YG’s song “Big Bank” features a verse by Big Sean that says, “Feed me to the wolves, now I lead the pack and sh*t. You boys all cap, I’m more Colin Kaepernick.” In the game, Kaepernick’s name is replaced by a brief silence.

Cue the Twitterstorm. Both YG and Big Sean spoke out, saying neither approved of the alteration.

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For its part, Electronic Arts quickly issued a full-throated apology.

Just an image and name rights mix-up! These things happen! And yet. Looking back at last year’s game, it appears the brand did the same thing to Mike WiLL Made-It’s “Bars of Soap,” with the former NFL star’s name blanked out of this line: “She be hopin’ that I take a knee like Kaepernick, yes.” Which makes this year’s omission less a one-time whoopsie, and more like the game maker is kneeling to a request from its NFL rights overlord to keep Kaepernick out of sight (and ears), out of mind.

Except of course it backfired.

Electronic Arts isn’t stupid, and on one hand, it may make sense to placate the paranoia of a perennial cash cow. However, its audience should be more important. I haven’t done any market research on this, but I’d be willing to bet one of my middle toes that the Madden audience is younger and more diverse than NFL front offices and league management. The game also relies heavily on the official and unofficial promotion it gets from young players, artists, and celebrities who love the game. The majority of those are African-American, and you’ve just scrubbed your soundtrack of a man’s name who’s been cast out by a majority old-white-male-owned league for standing up for civil rights. Not only is this siding with the wrong side of history, it’s just bad business.

Already fellow pro athletes are speaking out, including LA Lakers’ Donovan Mitchell and Houston Rockets’ star Chris Paul.

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The NFL may be an incredibly lucrative partner, but EA must realize how this looks to its young, diverse audience who also buy its NBA and FIFA franchises. The company must immediately explain why Kaepernick’s name was blanked out in last year’s game, and make a grand gesture of faith beyond the standard, sober corporate apology. It’s these types of incidents that erase consumer goodwill and brand loyalty built over decades–in an instant.

In an ideal world, EA Sports would not only put Kaepernick’s name back in the soundtrack, but the player back in the game. Issue a Colin Kaepernick DLC package and let players put him on any team they want. If the NFL can’t manage to do the right thing, EA can at least empower fans to.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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