The National Football League is in an uncomfortable position.
The sports and entertainment juggernaut is in talks to renew its $100 million deal with Elon Musk’s troubled social media platform, X, formerly known as Twitter, The Wall Street Journal reported in November.
But Musk’s unhinged behavior and the surge in hate and extremism on his platform have complicated the partnership, which The Journal reported expires in April, and raised the question of whether the NFL will renew its deal with the imperiled social media company.
The NFL, the most popular professional sports league in the United States, has found itself smack dab in the center of a raging and unrelenting storm of controversy as one of X’s most notable partners.
As owner of X, Musk has promoted a number of conspiracy theories, flirted with and elevated extremists, launched ugly attacks on the Anti-Defamation League and George Soros, smeared the press, and sought to chill the speech of critics through lawsuits. Over the weekend, Musk reinstated the account of Alex Jones, the right-wing extremist notorious for spreading hateful conspiracy theories, most notably the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting was a hoax. By Monday, X was actively encouraging users to follow Jones’ account.
A representative for the NFL did not respond to requests for comment about its partnership with X and Musk’s decision to welcome back Jones to the platform. But the NFL has previously said that it has voiced concerns about hate on X to Musk and the platform directly.
Whatever the NFL ultimately decides about the fate of its relationship with Musk and X, it is almost certain to face some backlash.
On one hand, the NFL does not wish to alienate conservatives, for which Musk has largely become a heroic figure as he fights the supposed “woke mind virus,” serves as a warrior in their cultural wars, and voices support for Republican candidates. On the other hand, by signing a new agreement and maintaining a partnership with X, the NFL risks alienating the rest of its massive and diverse fanbase, for which Musk’s brand has grown increasingly toxic.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the renowned professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, told CNN on Monday that “the stubborn, contrarian demons within Musk” have made him “a hero and villain” to different groups of people. But, Sonnenfeld stressed, “Great brands such as the NFL cannot burn in the fires of his tantrums.”
“No responsible advertiser should be partnering with this promoter of hate speech, antisemitism, spreading fact-free conspiracy theories, and providing platforms for those who mock the suffering of parents of slaughtered innocent children,” said Sonnenfeld, who has advised hundreds of CEOs and recent US presidents. “He needs advice not advertising.”
If the NFL were to abandon X, Musk could lash out. Musk, who commands a following of 165 million X users, has spent his recent days raging against Disney chief executive Bob Iger for his decision to withdraw from advertising on the platform.
But Musk has made maintaining a business relationship extraordinarily difficult, if not altogether untenable.
His decisions, which have contributed to the rapid deterioration of X, has led to an advertiser exodus in recent weeks, prompted by Musk himself endorsing an antisemitic conspiracy theory popular with White nationalists.
Musk apologized for his comment at a conference days later amid an advertiser exodus, but went on to make other unhinged remarks, telling boycotting brands to “go f**k” themselves for pausing their advertisements on X.
Musk has not stopped there. Over the weekend, the erratic billionaire reinstated the account of Jones, who tormented families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting with lies that led to a tsunami of real-world harassment against them.
After handing Jones back his account of 1.5 million followers, Musk joined the Infowars founder for an audio stream, in which he was also interviewed by other extremists, including Andrew Tate, a right-wing misogynistic Internet personality who has been indicted in Romania on charges of human trafficking and rape. Tate has denied the charges.
Through it all, the NFL has continued to stand with Musk and X, diverging from other major brands which have publicly distanced themselves from the social media platform.
“We continue to work with them because our fans are clearly there,” Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, told CNBC in November.
On the same day Rolapp made his remarks, the NFL released a statement denouncing “all forms of hate speech and discrimination.”
“We’re aware of instances of hate speech on X and have expressed our concerns directly to X both in the past and again in the last few days,” Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s chief spokesperson, said in a statement at the time.
But McCarthy notably stopped short of announcing any type of action. As of Monday, the NFL remained as one of the few major companies continuing to advertise on X.
A representative for X did not respond to a request for comment.