If 2020 has brought an unprecedented reckoning around racial injustice in America, sports might be among the most impacted industries, a testing ground for just how far corporate brands can move into political discourse. NBA playoff games get canceled when players go on strike. A reckoning on Native American slurs forces the Washington Redskins to abandon their name. Tennis players like Naomi Osaka and WNBA teams wear Breonna Taylor’s name on jerseys and masks. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says he wishes he “had listened to Colin Kaepernick” when the rising star quarterback initiated a quiet on-field protest that resulted in him being exiled from his career.
Professional athletic leagues have been especially impacted by this year’s renewed focus on racism because so many players are impacted directly by that racism. For many athletes, the urgency has always been there. The difference now is the way that management and leagues are listening—and responding—to their concerns.
Jacksonville Jaguars CMO Julian Duncan has kept one foot in diversity and inclusion efforts since his earlier days at Nike, where he was a leader at the brand’s Black Employee Network. He also joined 11 other Black marketing leaders in June for Adweek’s State of Revolt summit on dismantling racism in the industry.
Now, Duncan is ushering in a new role that could be a sign of what’s to come for major league teams around the country. In August, the Jags announced Duncan would step into a new role as senior vice president of social responsibility and impact.
It’s a new kind of team level role. While the NFL itself has a diversity and inclusion leader (Jonathan Beane starts as svp and chief D&I officer Sept. 8), a diversity council and a slew of employee resource groups, a dedicated focus on social impact is unique to the Jacksonville team—for now.
“We will tackle issues that the players, franchises, and the NFL at large have identified as critical to address,” Duncan said, “[Including] education and economic advancement, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform. We also create space for other social issues that demand attention such as voting.”
The combination of marketing with diversity and social impact means that Duncan’s work encompasses inclusive campaigns that speak to this revolutionary moment in U.S. history. In late August, the Jaguars released its DuvALL Together campaign, playing on the famous fan chant referencing Jacksonville’s location in Duval County, Fla.
Shot on American Beach, one of the only beaches in Florida that allowed Black visitors in the days before desegregation, the campaign’s voiceover pulls from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the Black national anthem that was written by Jacksonville natives.
DuvALL Together was inspired, of course, by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this spring, which Duncan said “had a profound impact on us from the inside out.” The team’s players and coaches led protest marches through the city, engaging in “uncomfortable conversations that allowed us to see the hurt and pain that exists with people in the org, our locker room, the city, and beyond.”
The Jaguars are set apart by the fact it is the only 100% minority-owned team and includes one of the league’s few Black CMOs. For Duncan, the team’s platform brings with it a mandate to address racial justice and social responsibility. But it’s not something the marketing leader plans to rush. Complex issues take a long-haul approach.
“Our actions will be driven by the mantra and charge that our players crafted to hold us accountable: We will listen to, learn from, and lift up our community in everything that we do,” Duncan said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the human thing to do. And when we treat each other with humanity, division and alienation don’t stand a chance.”