By The Washington Post · Steven Zeitchik · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, WORLD, ENTERTAINMENT, SPORTS, RACE, FOOTBALL
On Monday, Disney announced that it had made a first-look deal - a mutual commitment to develop content - with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Among the potential projects are shows with Hulu, movies with Pixar and an ESPN docuseries about the activist-athlete's roller coaster recent years.
The announcement comes at a moment when politics, sports and entertainment are entwining in new ways, now converging at the country's largest entertainment company. And on its face, it represents a shocking turnaround. Kaepernick's protests, which began with kneeling during the national anthem and also included wearing socks that depicted police as pigs, created a legion of followers, a large number of detractors and a culture war that went all the way to the White House. He has been cheered, shunned and become, no matter one's politics, a lightning rod. And Disney has long been careful in the extreme to avoid lightning rods.
As a company with a record $70 billion in 2019 revenue, the firm relies on selling the greatest amount of goods to the greatest number of people. Most of its big-screen heroes, from Tony Stark to Moana, peddle general values of innovation and determination, avoiding both an overt nationalism and a spirit of protest. Disney has long avoided political commentary on the small screen too, largely eschewing the Stephen Colbert and "Saturday Night Live" ethos' of rivals CBS and NBC.
Yet here it stands, embracing Kaepernick across its brands.
The announcement even arrived with official Walt Disney Co. bells and whistles; the news release came with comments not just from executives at The Undefeated, the socially minded ESPN-owned website that will help oversee the partnership, but hosannas from Robert Iger, Disney's executive chairman. "Colin's experience gives him a unique perspective on the intersection of sports, culture and race," he noted.
As if to underline the shift, Disney also announced that former ESPN personality Jemele Hill, who left first "SportsCenter" and then the network over clashes with management regarding her political outspokenness, would help produce the Kaepernick docuseries. It was a homecoming for a prodigal daughter to go along with the minting of a new favorite son. (A homecoming of sorts - Hill was brought in by Kaepernick, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to talk about them publicly, not by ESPN.)
The apparent meaning of the effort did not go unnoticed by experts. As the longtime media journalist Anthony Crupi pointed out, the deal marked "a reversal of the play nice with 345 Park Ave/Stick to Sports initiatives" that Disney and ESPN had long practiced, referring to the NFL's New York headquarters.
The announcement also seemed to satisfy what the University of Virginia's Carmenita Higginbotham, who teaches and studies Disney, told The Washington Post just last week was required of the company.
"What Disney has to do is figure out how to make itself matter, how to get in front of audiences in very different ways than it has in the past," she said. "Because the previous rules . . . of just riding safely down the middle of American society" no longer work.
But the Kaepernick deal may also be less subversive than it appears. Kaepernick and his approach - which deployed a visually potent image to call attention to systemic racism and police misconduct - were in fact endorsed by Disney only after many entities had already pivoted to embrace the athlete during the past six weeks of Black Lives Matter protests. As a larger political movement has gone from marginal to mainstream - and, not insignificantly, as President Trump's poll numbers suggest his waning ability to win this particular culture war or use it to his political advantage - it has made the former QB safe for a lot of companies, and ultimately for Disney.
The Kaepernick signing, in other words, says a lot more about the distance his message has traveled than how far Disney has come.
When he first took a seat, then a knee, in 2016 and explained his actions ("I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color"), Kaepernick prompted many other players to do the same. He also prompted a weeks-long attack by the president, who among other things said protesters were "disrespecting our country" and suggested they should be fired for kneeling. Also following was a possibly related drop in NFL ratings; Kaepernick's blackballing by NFL owners; a backlash-filled Nike ad campaign; and many impassioned defenders who decried his treatment by NFL owners.
The league, in the aftermath of the kneeling movement he kick-started, in 2018 even rewrote its rules to require players on the field to stand for the anthem.
But Kaepernick is hardly non-grata anymore. As protests against police brutality and on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement took worldwide root following the police killing of George Floyd, they significantly changed Kaepernick's standing and broadened his acceptance into places he'd never previously found it. Even Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner who oversaw the anthem policy, released a video apologizing and endorsing Black Lives Matter.
The climate made Kaepernick go from outlier to fixture - and, even more, made him a must-have symbol for companies looking to show they are on the right side of history. For a large entertainment outfit, Kaepernick now presents a prize not easily obtained: the chance to appear activist in a moment when some of the country's biggest celebrities are crying out for action.
Disney was hardly out front in working with Kaepernick even among other entertainment giants. Netflix, Disney's sometimes more quick-footed rival, had announced a deal to produce a show based on his life a week earlier.
Even Trump appears to have decided Kaepernick is no longer a worthy target for his purposes. While the president continues to wage a culture war - just on Monday he tweeted criticism for NASCAR's decision to ban Confederate flags and said Bubba Wallace should apologize for the noose "hoax" - he has dramatically changed his stance on Kaepernick. "If he deserves it, he should" the president said about landing a spot on an NFL roster. It was a far cry from his comments at a rally in 2017 that, upon seeing a player knee, an NFL owner should tell a coach to "get that...off the field right now," using an obscenity. "Out. He's fired. He's fired."
But all of this mainstreaming and revisionism over Kaepernick's brand of course doesn't mean there aren't plenty of shots left in the culture war. It just means they won't be fired over him.
None of the Kaepernick or kneeling acceptance, for instance, speaks to how some of the constituencies that have softened on it will respond when he or others push the protests further, when it goes beyond a kneel to more overtly political messages about the government, about candidates, about the police. Or how Disney will react when they do. Already athletes are objecting to how the NBA, with which ESPN partners on a three-company $24 billion broadcasting deal, has managed the question of messages on jerseys when the league restarts later this month. (Philadelphia 76ers forward Mike Scott criticized the move on Monday as "a bad miss" the limiting nature of the process, in which players can choose from a handful of NBA-approved slogans but do no more.)
Nor, for that matter, does it speak to how ESPN and Disney will react when(ever) the NFL season starts and, say, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, historically outspoken against liberal politicians and causes, chooses to end his recent silence. Or if ratings drop. Or in the event of many other developments that force a more difficult choice than signing a first-look deal with a valuable brand.
The Kaepernick signing is historic - but for the recently fomented cultural change it epitomizes, not for a broader shift it augurs. And certainly not for any long-term change it yet suggests at Disney.
Disney, of course, is not in any way required to practice activism; as a publicly traded firm, it will make decisions on the basis of shareholders, not politics. But activists and academics are also within their rights to tamp down their enthusiasm about the move.
Some commentators on Monday did just that.
"This is more than offering platitudes, they're spending money," Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California professor and expert on pop culture and black history, told The Post of the Kaepernick deal. "But they're also doing something that is within their own self-interest to do. He poses no real risk to their business, other than the money they're investing." Boyd noted that Kaepernick's "iconic value is especially high at the moment."
Disney is taking the lead from other companies in accepting Kaepernick, showing that America's most politically cautious media company is changing - but only regarding one personality, only when it's likely to provide benefit and only after many other institutions have already paved the way. Whether other entities will still follow an activist celebrity no matter where they may go - and whether Disney will in turn continue to follow them - remains the more important and less answerable question.