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How Many Coincidences Does It Take to Screw Over Colin Kaepernick?

From removing in-game mentions of his name to limiting how fans interact with his avatar, Kaepernick’s treatment in the Madden franchise seems off. Is EA purposely sabotaging the player-turned-activist?

Kitanya Harrison
Sep 20, 2018 · 14 min read
Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick appears to be rising like a phoenix from the ashes. When he first began his anti-police brutality protests two years ago, I don’t think anyone, least of all him, saw this convoluted journey coming. In his refusal to stand for the national anthem before NFL games — a tactic suggested to him by a United States veteran — Kaepernick became a cultural icon, and was turned away from professional football by forces that seemed almost too powerful to fight.

But he did fight. Kaepernick filed a legal claim alleging that NFL teams colluded to deny him employment. His controversial new partnership with Nike has shifted the balance of power in his battle with the NFL, which seems stunned by the recent turn of events. Stephen Burbank, the arbitrator in Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL, recently denied the league’s request to have the case dismissed, finding that Kaepernick’s legal team has presented enough evidence to move forward to trial. This was a massive blow for the league. Kaepernick, as I’ve long believed, has a case.

Kaepernick’s fight with the NFL took on another dimension a few weeks ago, when the story broke that Electronic Arts (EA), the company that produces the video game Madden NFL, edited Kaepernick’s name out of songs on the Madden NFL 18 and 19 soundtracks. The revelation sparked outrage on social media, even overshadowing the NFL preseason opener. The news spread widely, and led to speculation that EA made the edits on the NFL’s instruction. EA claimed Kaepernick’s name was scrubbed from the Madden NFL 19 soundtrack because the company no longer had the rights to use his likeness. But the company had the rights to Kaepernick’s likeness in Madden NFL 18, where his name was also removed from songs. The excuse doesn’t hold up. The NFL hasn’t commented on the controversy.

In the aftermath of that scandal, I took a closer look at Kaepernick’s treatment in Madden NFL and found that EA appears to have suppressed content related to him over three versions of Madden NFL (17, 18 and 19), using a variety of methods: the aforementioned scrubbing of his name from songs on game soundtracks, omitting mention of him from weekly live commentary updates that incorporate important NFL-related news, and not allowing players to use rare, coveted in-game rewards called Golden Tickets on him.

EA sent an email out to Golden Ticket winners that added a new stipulation to the rules: The NFL player chosen had to be on a current roster, effectively barring Kaepernick, who was a free agent.

Golden Tickets are the most important promotion in the fantasy football mode of Madden NFL, and they’re also incredibly rare — for context, there were only 10 Golden Ticket winners for Playstation and 10 for Xbox, as well as a community ticket players could vote on in Madden NFL 18. The fantasy football mode is called Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) and, unlike traditional fantasy football, there isn’t a draft. Instead, players use the official Muthead (“Madden Ultimate Team Community”) website to build their fantasy teams.

The site contains a wide selection of cards featuring current and former NFL players, which are traded using real and in-game currency. Golden Tickets allow MUT players to choose an NFL player in the game, upgrade him, and customize a card for him, making it possible to create a card with a 99 overall rating (a perfect score).

The MUT community must be highly invested in what cards are made by Golden Ticket holders; when a winner announces which NFL player they plan to use, it’s major news. But it’s even bigger news when EA has to invent a new rule to prevent fans from customizing cards as they wish. That’s what happened when a Golden Ticket winner in Madden NFL 18 wanted to use Kaepernick to make their card. Following the announcement, EA sent an email out to Golden Ticket winners that added a new stipulation to the rules: The NFL player chosen had to be on a current roster, effectively barring Kaepernick, who was a free agent.

Each week, the broadcasters in Madden NFL record updated commentary that includes recent NFL-related news, and this commentary is added to the game. Kaepernick’s omission from Madden NFL’s live commentary updates began in August 2016, shortly after he launched his protest. Most importantly, EA had gone on record saying that Kaepernick — specifically, his decision to protest — would be included in the updates, citing the game’s commitment to authenticity. Something changed EA’s mind.

When I tweeted my article covering these omissions, I received the following reply:

Tweet from @originator39 raising the issue of Kaepernick’s low rating in Madden NFL

I began researching Kaepernick’s ratings in Madden NFL and uncovered what looks like a fourth suppression method: The MUT card that EA released for Kaepernick in Madden NFL 18 gave him shockingly low ratings, making him an unattractive choice for MUT players. As I looked further into his MUT card ratings, I discovered that Kaepernick’s name does not appear in search results on the home page of Muthead. I also now believe a closer look should be taken at the player ratings Kaepernick was assigned at the launch of Madden NFL 18 to determine if they were lowered unfairly.

Three of these six suppression methods lead back to MUT. To fully understand why Kaepernick’s treatment in MUT should raise red flags, you have to understand how important MUT is to EA.

EA’s sports games — FIFA, Madden NFL, and NHL, for example — have Ultimate Team (fantasy) modes. MUT is particularly intense, because there are so many cards of different levels and values for players to acquire. As a result, the MUT marketplace is incredibly active and has spawned a culture where hoarding cards and coins (the in-game currency) are of paramount importance.

The Ultimate Team microtransactions are more important to EA than sales of actual games.

While it’s difficult to pin down the exact value of MUT, the microtransactions generated by Ultimate Team overall are wildly lucrative for EA. For context, Ultimate Team brought in around $650 million for EA in the fiscal year 2016. Ultimate Team is so important to EA that a Wall Street analyst warned that the company’s dependence on those earnings makes EA “one dimensional.” The Ultimate Team microtransactions are more important to EA than sales of actual games.

MUT’s earning power can be attributed in part to the size of the community. EA sold over 4.42 million copies of Madden NFL 18 for consoles. According to Blake Jorgensen, EA’s CFO, between 70 to 75 percent of people who buy EA’s sports games play Ultimate Team. About half of them will spend money to play.

Given how lucrative MUT is for EA, decisions about it aren’t made lightly. A household name like Kaepernick being excluded is unlikely to be an oversight.

Let’s talk more about household names. Kaepernick’s was difficult to find on the Muthead site, where players choose their fantasy teams. After visiting the site to look through his MUT ratings, I discovered he was omitted from the search results.

When you begin to enter a player’s name in the search tool on the upper right corner of Muthead, a drop-down menu appears with potential matches. (The main search bar in the center of the page does not show a drop-down menu and doesn’t return any results for any name entered.)

These were the results when I typed “tom” into the search bar in the upper-right corner:

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All screenshots fom Muthead’s search function

These were the results when I typed in “tom brady”:

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These were the results when I typed in “colin”:

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These were the results when I typed in “kae”:

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These were the results when I typed in “kaepernick”:

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These were the results when I typed in “colin kaepernick”:

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Kaepernick’s name did appear in the search results for Madden 1518 when I used the advanced search feature, which is two clicks away from the homepage, as opposed to the search engine that’s featured top-right on Muthead. The advanced search feature allows you to look for players by game edition. That Kaepernick appears here makes his absence from the basic search results even more suspect.

I tested the basic search function on the homepage using more than 20 players’ names, including retired players and free agents. Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s close friend and vocal supporter, who is now also unemployed after continuing Kaepernick’s anti-police brutality protests during the 2017 NFL season, appears in the search results. The only three names I tested that didn’t show up in the search results were Greg Hardy, Aaron Hernandez, and Tony Romo. Hardy was convicted of domestic violence (the charges were later dismissed after the victim didn’t testify) and eventually left the league in disgrace. Hernandez was convicted of murder (his conviction was vacated after he died in prison awaiting appeal). Romo, who has retired and moved into the announcers’ booth, has battled with the NFL and EA over what he believes are their attempts to scuttle Fan Expo, the fantasy football company of which he is part-owner.

It should be acknowledged that the search engine on Muthead.com is wonky at best, and that none of these men appear in Madden NFL 19; it may be that Muthead removes any player that doesn’t appear in the latest edition from their main search tool. However, given that we know EA edited Kaepernick’s name out of songs on the soundtracks of Madden NFL 18 and 19, it seems fair to question whether he is being removed from the search results deliberately.

There are two types of ratings in question: player ratings and MUT card ratings. I’ll discuss Kaepernick’s player ratings first.

At the launch of every edition of Madden NFL, each player is assigned an overall rating out of 99. Numerical values (also out of 99) are also assigned to his attributes, such as speed, strength, and agility. These initial player ratings are determined using the prior NFL season’s statistics, and they are updated weekly to reflect the player’s season as it progresses.

Since Kaepernick was a free agent in Madden NFL 18, and sites that archive Madden NFL ratings usually don’t include free agents unless they join a team during the season, Kaepernick’s player ratings at the launch of Madden NFL 18 are difficult to find. However, the screengrab below was taken soon after that edition of the game launched in August 2017 and shows Kaepernick’s player ratings, including his overall rating of 73.

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Colin Kaepernick’s player ratings in Madden NFL 18 from NFL.com

According to Madden Ratings, Kaepernick’s overall player ratings at the launches of Madden NFL 12–17 (released between 2011 and 2016) were 70, 70, 89, 89, 81, and 74, respectively. Kaepernick’s overall rating of 73 in Madden NFL 18 is odd, because the 2016 NFL season, which should have been used to determine his ratings, was the best statistical season he’d had in years. While his team, the San Francisco 49ers, didn’t have the season he did, One could argue Kaepernick was due for an upgrade.

Kaepernick’s throwing attributes also took a hit in Madden NFL 18, even though his real-life quarterback rating (which is calculated using a quarterback’s throwing statistics) increased from 78.5 in 2015 to 90.7 in 2016. In Madden NFL 17, Kaepernick’s short, mid-range, and deep throwing accuracy attributes were 78, 78, and 73, respectively. In Madden NFL 18, they were 78, 74, and 71. Kaepernick’s completion percentages were virtually identical over the 2015 and 2016 seasons — 59.0 and 59.2 percent, respectively. (To see Kaepernick’s Madden NFL 17 attributes, click on this link, scroll down to the 49ers logo, click on it, and you’ll be taken to an Excel spreadsheet.)

While Kaepernick’s player ratings in Madden NFL 18 raise eyebrows, his MUT card ratings sound alarm bells.

Wondering if the downgrades were justified, I reached out to Curtis Knight, Lead Content Creator for Sports Gamers Online. Knight, a former Madden Challenge winner who now reports on the game, believes Kaepernick’s ratings are fair. “I think anytime a player is off a roster in the free agent pool they take a bit of a drop,” Knight told me. “I know the ratings guys pretty well,” he continued, “and don’t think [Kaepernick’s social justice stance] was a factor at all.”

Madden NFL player ratings can be highly controversial, and Kaepernick’s numbers aren’t the first to have sparked controversy. In 2015, FiveThirtyEight published an in-depth, behind-the-scenes report on how the ratings are formulated and revealed how complex the process is. The only way to be sure about exactly what happened with Kaepernick’s player ratings is to take a look at the inputs the ratings team made, and probe the details of their communication and correspondence at the time his ratings were being prepared. If Kaepernick’s player ratings were deliberately lowered, that decision was most likely made above the ratings team’s pay grade.

While Kaepernick’s player ratings in Madden NFL 18 raise eyebrows, his MUT card ratings sound alarm bells.

In MUT, EA creates tradable cards of NFL players. While the player ratings discussed above are updated weekly according to a player’s performance as the season progresses, the MUT cards used in fantasy mode aren’t. EA sometimes produces “updated” cards for NFL players, but the ratings might not be based on the individual player’s actual performance. For example, EA might issue special edition MUT cards for NFL players that “supercharge” their abilities and attributes. Similar to Golden Tickets, these cards are highly desirable.

When I found Kaepernick on Muthead, I discovered commenters taking strong issue with his low MUT card ratings. In Madden NFL 18, Kaepernick had one card on Muthead, where he was given an overall rating of 67. It seemed strange for his MUT card rating to be so much lower than his already-suspect player rating of 73. Kaepernick’s throwing attributes specifically raised red flags — particularly his throw power, which, at 62, is incredibly low for a quarterback who was also a major league pitching prospect and has been known for the strength of his arm since college. It is significantly lower than the 94 in his player ratings at the launch of the game.

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Kaepernick’s MUT card in Madden NFL 18 from EA Sports

Kaepernick’s throwing accuracy attributes on his MUT card also took big hits. His short, mid-range, and deep throwing accuracy attributes were 61, 60, and 58, respectively, compared to his player ratings from the same game, which were 78, 74, and 71, respectively. Kaepernick’s other throwing attributes on his MUT card — throw on the run and play action (how well the thrower’s fake handoff baits the defender into playing the run) — were also significantly lower than his player ratings.

There’s also the matter of how Kaepernick’s numbers on his MUT card compared to those of his peers. Muthead has a compare tool that allows users to look at MUT cards head-to-head. In August 2017, a disgruntled MUT player with the handle Aircord posted a link that compared Kaepernick’s card to Chase Daniel’s and Trevone Boykin’s. Daniel and Boykin were both backup quarterbacks in 2016. Daniel played in only one game and made only one pass, which he completed. Boykin, who went undrafted, played in five games in 2016, and was cut by the Seahawks this March. Boykin remains a free agent. But in 2016, Kaepernick played well (for a losing team, the 49ers), and is still considered a starting caliber quarterback by NFL teams. The following screengrab shows that EA assigned Daniel an overall rating of 73 and gave Boykin a 72. EA also rated Daniel and Boykin’s throwing attributes significantly higher than Kaepernick’s.

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Comparison of the Madden NFL 18 MUT cards of Colin Kaepernick, Chase Daniel, and Trevone Boykin from Muthead

Kaepernick’s card looks like a lemon that MUT players would obviously pass over. Was that deliberate sabotage on EA’s part?

Couple Kaepernick’s poor MUT card ratings in Madden NFL 18 with his being eliminated from the Golden Ticket promotion of the same game, and you get some highly suspicious behavior from EA.

Maybe. According to Knight, MUT cards often start with low ratings. That way, EA can release updated cards with higher ratings throughout the year and rake in the microtransactions. It’s a money grab.

Here’s where things get sticky with regards to Kaepernick: the money-grabbing part never came to fruition. EA didn’t release any new cards for Kaepernick in Madden NFL 18. A whole year has passed, a new edition of the game is out, and that dreadful card is still sitting there. By comparison, in Madden NFL 17, Kaepernick had a Flashback card with an overall 93 rating that was based on his standout performance against the Green Bay Packers in the 2013 NFC Divisional Round. In addition, the strategy of starting with low ratings to hawk higher-rated cards later in the year doesn’t explain why Kaepernick’s numbers were so spectacularly awful and that much lower than players of lesser ability.

Couple Kaepernick’s poor MUT card ratings in Madden NFL 18 with his being eliminated from the Golden Ticket promotion of the same game, and you get some highly suspicious behavior from EA.

Kaepernick’s recent deal with Nike demonstrates that all the arguments claiming “he’s bad for business” don’t hold water. From Sunday through Tuesday of this Labor Day weekend, Nike’s online purchases saw a 31 percent jump. That’s significantly higher than the 17 percent increase the prior year’s Labor Day weekend accounted for.

Kaepernick is bank, and I don’t think it’s likely that a publicly held, billion-dollar company as sophisticated as EA didn’t realize it while Nike, Adidas, and Puma did. There’s a reason Nike waited until it had closed its 10-year on-field apparel deal with the NFL before announcing its partnership with Kaepernick. It’s the same reason EA didn’t leverage Kaepernick’s name to generate MUT microtransactions. Free agent or not, there was money to be made on Kaepernick — and EA left it on the table.

The details of EA’s exclusive license with the NFL aren’t public, but the deference they’ve shown the league in the past would seem to indicate that they have much less leverage than Nike does in forging a path that diverges from the league’s.

There is billowing smoke coming from inside the Madden NFL offices of EA. We now know that, intentionally or not, EA has used three distinct methods — unnecessarily removing his name from two soundtracks, not including him in live commentary updates despite paying lip service to the idea, and removing fans’ ability to spend Golden Tickets on him — and potentially used three others, to suppress Kaepernick’s presence in three editions of Madden NFL (17–19) and on Muthead.

Kaepernick’s partnership with Nike has pushed him back into the public eye, and it will be interesting to see how the fresh wave of press will affect the contours of his collusion case. Things already seem to be shifting: Last Tuesday, the NFL released a statement that said, in part, “The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.” It’s quite a departure for the league, and I don’t think the importance of Kaepernick being mentioned by name should be underestimated. Nike aired a new ad featuring Kaepernick during the NFL season opener, so the company clearly intends to keep applying pressure on the league.

Written by

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: books2read.com/u/mBOYNv | IG: kitanyaharrison

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