Football is the perfect public platform for discussing racial disparity, no matter how convincingly sappy patriotic songs and inaccurate textbooks proclaim equality has been achieved
Richard Pryor once joked about the relationship African-Americans have with the American judicial system, “If you go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: just us.” Not much has changed in 50 years. But if people of color want to figure out who’s got to shoulder the heavy lifting to bring about meaningful change, the answer is the same. Just us. That’s why the relatively benign protests among some NFL players over the last 18 months are being studied so closely by the full spectrum of left-to-right politicians. It’s a social petri dish to determine whether we’re growing an antibiotic to institutional racism or weaponizing a nasty virus to infect American Exceptionalism.
To be clear, these protests are so peaceful – taking a knee or staying in the locker room during the national anthem – that they are less violent than post-Super Bowl street parties or even Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s marches. And the message is so historically American that Betsy Ross could have embroidered it on her bloomers: “All people are created equal, so let’s treat them that way.”
More specifically for the NFL protestors, let’s stop gunning down unarmed blacks, stop giving substandard education to black children, stop creating legal obstacles to keep minorities from voting, stop passing laws that punish blacks more than whites for doing the same crime. Instead, promote equal job opportunities so we can prosper and affordable health care to prevent us from dying younger than whites. Bottom line: We want our children to have the same shot at a happy, healthy, successful life that white kids have. Sappy patriotic songs and deliberately inaccurate textbooks proclaim we already have it, but hundreds of studies by the US government, the United Nations and best institutions in America say we don’t. And every African-American who walks out onto the street every day knows we don’t. The goal then is to wake those who don’t know that out of their cozy slumber.
There are two reasons why the NFL is the perfect public platform for discussing racial disparity. First, 70% of NFL’s 1,696 players are black. If ever there was a group that should be sensitive to racial inequity, it would be them. To many whites, especially those skeptical that racism even exists, the level of commitment of black players protesting reflects how serious the problem is. They are a social thermometer measuring the degree of racism in our social climate.
Second, the NFL’s significant ratings means it reaches not just a lot of people (an average of 18m), but a wider cross-section of people, particularly those whose hearts and minds need to be changed if we are to see progress. This target audience may not be aware of the problem or are reluctant to believe there is a problem until they see their favorite players week after week expressing their sadness and frustration at calculated government inaction.
The question on everyone’s minds is: Has the players’ protest already failed?
There’s evidence to suggest it has. Of those 70% black NFL players (1,187), only 15 to 23 (about 2%) have regularly protested at games on a weekly basis. To the white fans the protestors are trying to reach, those tiny numbers might suggest there is no big problem. For them, it’s a legitimate excuse to ignore the issue: If blacks don’t care, why should I?
What’s odd about the lack of commitment from black players are the troubling racial statistics within their own game. The preference for white quarterbacks has always been a contentious issue. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, in 1999, 81% of the quarterbacks were white. Fast forward 15 years later to 2014 and its 80.2% white. According to the US Census, only 6.7% of management are black. They’re facing disparity in their own artificially turfed backyards.
Equally troubling is that the NFL managed to choke-hold Colin Kaepernick’s career. We don’t need the X-Files’ Lone Gunmen to recognize a conspiracy to deliberately sacrifice uppity Kaepernick because he refused to quit taking a knee.
More bad news: The Players Coalition, NFL players committed to addressing social justice, has had internal dissent about how to proceed, causing some players to split from the group.
Yet, despite all that, there is much more evidence that the protests have been effective. First, we’re still talking about it, aren’t we? That’s one of the main goals of any prolonged protest: to keep the issue in the public eye. To keep the conversation going. All progressive movements met with strong resistance at first, but constant protest leads to reform. We already know that many were not keen to abandon slavery. Nor were many anxious to give women the vote, eliminate child labor, abolish Jim Crow laws, end the Vietnam War. These reforms were accomplished over time by protestors who held their ground despite lack of popularity. History has honored them to as admired patriots. As long as there are players, no matter how few, out there every week showing their courage in the face of others’ timidity, the protests are effective.
A practical result of the protests is the $89m the NFL pledged over seven years to be donated to grassroots social justice groups. The NFL made no demands that the players stop protesting, but some players felt mission accomplished and ceased protesting. Others saw it as hush money, a bribe to keep everyone standing and smiling during the national anthem, and continued to protest. As they saw it, the issue wasn’t about extorting money, it was about raising awareness in the general population to engender real substantive legislative changes.
A particularly heartening result of the NFL protests is how it has spread to colleges and high schools. One Native American high school quarterback who chose to kneel during the anthem was at first supported by his mostly Latino high school. But when he did the same thing at another school that was 78% white, their protests resulted in the boy’s school district passing a rule that made standing for the national anthem mandatory. They threatened to kick the quarterback off the team unless he stood. Instead, he stood up to them by suing the district for violating his constitutional right to free speech. If the NFL protests inspires that kind of brave, patriotic American, fighting on behalf of the US Constitution, then it has been successful.
The bigger question is what is the NFL fighting so hard to protect?
Their political answer was that they wanted to preserve the American respect for the flag and for veterans. President Trump made that point at his State of the Union address. Numerous veterans have made the same point. They are wrong. Protesting when the government doesn’t live up to or directly undermines the principles of the US Constitution is the best way to honor the flag and veterans because those principles are what they fought for. Trying to discourage freedom of expression actually insults veterans by diminishing their sacrifice.
The NFL owners’ more pressing concern was money. They feared that their decline in ratings was the result of player protests. But we have since come to learn that the decline is due to the same reasons all television shows are in decline: too many entertainment options. According to Recode, “MoffettNathanson, like most sober analysis of NFL ratings, doesn’t blame the ratings decline on the Trump/Kaepernick/anthem controversy, since there’s zero evidence people actually tuned out for that reason.” In fact, a USA Today poll in September 2017 showed 68% thought Trump’s call to fire protesting player was inappropriate versus only 27% who agreed with him. Owners’ panic was both unfounded and unflattering. A willingness to sacrifice patriotism for profit.
Last week, Colin Kaepernick, still sidelined by the vengeful NFL, announced he had reached his goal, launched back in September 2016, of donating $1m of his salary to communities in need. He donated $10,000 of his own money for every $10,000 others donated. And donate they did, including Usher, Stephen Curry, Nick Cannon and Jesse Williams.
NFL players are still taking knee. Colin Kaepernick is still fighting for social justice. A high school student is suing to protect the Constitution. Have the NFL protests been successful in making people care?
You cared enough to read this article, didn’t you?