Last updated: Sep 9, 2019
“I’m not going to stand to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black People and People of Color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish for me to look the other way.” —Colin Kaepernick
Perhaps it was inevitable that the National Football League would not be immune to the raw, angry clashes around race that have exploded into super bursts of toxic energy around the country particularly since wannabe cop George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
Sports, we’re told, is the great equalizer. On the field, they intone, race doesn’t matter, only athletic prowess, hard work and the devotion to winning. But this truism is as false as a $3 dollar bill, as illustrated by the NFL’s reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s fateful decision to kneel before a preseason game in August 2016. His gesture demonstrated his opposition to the second class treatment of Black people, racial injustice and condemnation of a society which condones police brutality and the extra-judicial murders of Black men, women and children.
Since then, the former San Francisco quarterback has been banished by owners of the NFL’s 32 teams, ostracized by some fellow players and shunned because of a principled stance against the laundry list of racial- and racist-inspired challenges that confront Blacks in America. He has also won the admiration of many, inspired a movement, was offered a Nike deal, continued his activism and forced the league to settle and pay him as part of a labor dispute. He still doesn’t have a job in the NFL.
Despite NFL team owners antagonizing, threatening and bullying players who knelt in solidarity, spoke out or displayed other forms of civil disobedience—and President Donald Trump jumping in to disparage and insult the Black players and changing the narrative of the real reasons for the protests—the issue hasn’t gone away.
Color of Change is just one of a number of social justice organizations that have supported Mr. Kaepernick since he began his protest. Executive Director Rashad Robinson said Mr. Kaepernick has played a vital role in pushing forward the struggle for racial equality, fairness and justice.
“Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter activists have opened up the movement and engaged to change written and unwritten rules,” he told The Final Call in a recent interview. “We’ve been really engaged. We’ve done work to push corporations to respond and support Kaepernick and Eric Reid. We’ve gotten members of Color of Change to give visible support. We’ve fought back in the media on behalf of Kaepernick and other players and offered other support with op-eds.”
“We feel that we have to leverage these movements for system change. That’s our goal.”
There have been noticeable impacts on the NFL because of the player protest movement. The subsequent public boycott of the NFL by those supporting Mr. Kaepernick—who last played for the San Francisco 49ers—has hurt revenue, reduced viewership and tarnished the brand.
Fans who support Mr. Kaepernick have refused to watch games, attendance has fallen and big money entertainers refused to be a part of the NFL’s signature Super Bowl 2019 halftime show as the league refused to allow Mr. Kaepernick—who despite his age is still considered an elite quarterback—to vie for and take his place on a team.
At its start in the first year, more than 200 football players joined Mr. Kaepernick in kneeling or engaging in other forms of silent protest. But over time, the numbers have dwindled, with players like Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid and now-Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills being the most outspoken supporters of Mr. Kaepernick and articulators of the protestors’ positions.
Mr. Robinson and other social justice warriors understand and acknowledge how formidable an adversary the NFL is. It’s a $75 billion behemoth promoting the most popular sport in America and the 32 owners wield considerable power. But as several interviewees noted, the players don’t realize the strength they have because the NFL would not and could not function without their participation.
“This was a golden opportunity missed,” said Gary Johnson, founder and publisher of Black Men in America, a premier online magazine. “One Sunday, just one Sunday, if all or most of the players sat down, it would change everything … it would ripple around the whole country.”
Mr. Johnson’s son Chris agreed.
“The players don’t understand the power they have. They are the billion-dollar product. Until those seats are empty, the owners won’t get it,” said the younger Mr. Johnson, a political commentator and musician.
For three years, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell searched in vain for ways to silence the protestors and turn the page on the social justice demonstrations. He now believes he’s found the perfect tool.
The billionaire entertainer and mogul recently joined Mr. Goodell a few weeks ago to announce a collaboration that names Roc Nation as the league’s official live music entertainment strategists. As part of the deal, Roc Nation will spearhead and advise the NFL on artist selection for music performances, including the extremely popular Super Bowl halftime show. In addition, Roc Nation is supposed to also work on the league’s social justice platform called Inspire Change. The initiative, launched earlier this year, aims to address the criminal justice reform, police and community relations, education and economic advancement.
But the partnership has triggered fierce push back and invited deepening public skepticism that the collaboration is nothing more than a camouflage and a not-too-subtle way to let the NFL off the hook.
“It’s a little bit of a smokescreen,” sports lawyer and businessman Michael Huyghue told The Final Call. “Top athletes were refusing to perform. The real damage was not the issues surrounding the protests, the real issue was drawing top performers. Bringing Jay-Z in is a way to make performers feel more comfortable, and by the way, ‘we’ll deal with social issues too.’ ”
In actuality, Mr. Huyghue explained, the NFL has no platform on how it will specifically deal with the social justice issues raised by Mr. Kaepernick, and Jay-Z doesn’t have any real civil rights or social justice background to offer the type of depth and expertise needed to foster real and significant change.
Longtime human rights Attorney Nicole C. Lee described the NFL-Jay Z issue as “simple and complicated,” adding that the NFL has shown no sincerity or desire to address the issues Mr. Kaepernick has raised. The larger issue, she contends, is the attempted muzzling of Black athletes and a denial of their constitutional right to free speech.
“The protest was about the treatment of African Americans by police. The support of Kaepernick is this issue but it’s also about how talented athletes and entertainers are treated as if they’re owned,” said Ms. Lee, co-founder of the Black Movement Law Project, principal of the Lee Bayard Group and former president of TransAfrica. “They’re not allowed to express their individual agency. The NFL is bypassing putting Kaepernick on a team and going to Jay-Z. Goodell bypassed the issue and went to Jay-Z. He basically said, ‘See, I got my African American, people like him.’ ”
“I think it’s actually simple and complicated,” continued Ms. Lee, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert, leadership coach, nationally recognized speaker. “People are still upset with Jay-Z’s move because Kaepernick still has not found a team. The fact that Kaepernick isn’t on a team indicates that the NFL is digging its heels and punishing speech. Black folks are penalized when they speak out. The NFL can have Jay-Z but having him will not change the situation or circumstances. People will continue to be pissed off. This is not going away.”
William “Billy” Hunter, former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), said he hasn’t followed everything that’s been going on in the NFL-Kaepernick imbriglio, but offered his perspective. Despite Jay-Z agreeing to work with the NFL, the issues that led to the player protest are still very present and unresolved, he said.
And the length and intensity of any protests or push back “depends on the reaction you get from the Black community and players. If they decide that Kap hasn’t gotten justice, this will continue,” the former union head said of the public boycott. “The NFL was beginning to feel impact and Jay-Z gives them assurance that everything is alright.”
Mr. Hunter, a longtime attorney who played for the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins, said it isn’t helpful that football players have split into different factions.
“The Players Coalition kinda hurts what Kap and others are trying to do because they took money,” he said of the $89 million the coalition of current players accepted from the owners for social justice programs. “The problem is that with the movement, the question is how many people would go with management. When I was with the NBAPA, (Commissioner David) Stern told me that he always had spies. The players are often insecure. They are the ones who might benefit the most but they don’t make as much as basketball players and don’t have guaranteed contracts. They won’t play for more than three or four years unless you have a breakout career.”
In all America’s other sports, the master-slave attitude persists, Mr. Hunter said.
“We had some knockdown dragouts because of this attitude. They expect that,” he said of the owners. “There are a lot of the vestiges of old days. David Stern was a lot more progressive, but the assumption is that if you have money people are supposed to bend or genuflect.”
Trade unionist, columnist and activist Bill Fletcher, Jr. said the Kaepernick protest overlaps as a social justice issue as well as a test of whether these athletes have a right to protest.
“It’s about the right to be protected in protesting which is an athlete’s right,” he said. “This is a stand against hypocrisy.”
Mr. Fletcher said he has had discussions with key people in the NFL Players’ Association and two issues surfaced: Mr. Kaepernick began his initial protest without informing them and that association leadership would only intervene if he gave the nod; and that NFLPA members were not unified on Mr. Kaepernick’s stand because of the split between conservative and left-wing members.
“I would have told Kaepernick to follow the Curt Flood model because he got player support as he fought for free agency,” said Mr. Fletcher, former president of the TransAfrica Forum and author of “They’re Bankrupting Us! And 20 Other Myths About Unions.” “I would also recommend that he build a strategy committee who was prepared to back him. Instead, he encountered periods of isolation. This needed to be a campaign. He was left standing by himself when he was expecting people to support him.
“Kaepernick taking this step by himself was noble and courageous but not strategic.”
Both Mr. Fletcher and Marc Bayard, a leading expert on racial equity and organizing strategies, cited the need for the NFL and individual owners to develop comprehensive education programs for the players on matters of race in America.
“In the past 2-3 years, I’ve had conversations with the staff at the NFLPA and the political realm has gone from typical bread-and-butter issues of better wages, concussion and safety to free agency,” said Mr. Bayard, an associate fellow and the director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative and the founding executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “They are well-versed in dealing with traditional issues but in an era of overt political issues, we all have room to grow. It’s incumbent of the league to have education and training on hot button issues to understand the nature of issues such as the policy around police brutality. I also believe that the symbolism and importance of players educating the public on social issues is critical.”
Harold Bell, long considered the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television in Washington, D.C., said Mr. Kaepernick’s work is in the longtime tradition of athletes who’ve spoken out. Yet despite the millions of dollars football players make, they are sometimes little more than what sportswriter, author and former New York Times columnist William Rhoden called “billion dollar slaves.”
“This is about how the One Percent controls us; it’s all about divide and conquer,” said Mr. Bell, who created “Inside Sports” in 1972 and who was talking about racism in the NFL, drug use among athletes and other sensitives issues on his radio and television shows decades ago. “When people say sports and politics don’t mix, I say they gotta be crazy. This war has been going on for a long, long time. Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Paul Robeson are all strong Black men who stood up but got knocked down.”
Mr. Bell echoed other interviewees who acknowledged that the NFL player protest movement sits at the nexus of sports, race and activism. It’s not a new phenomenon, with athletes in the past like Muhammad Ali refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam, and others like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting racism and other racially connected social ills in the 1960s.
But in this case, the players’ opposition to police brutality, institutional racism and oppression had been co-opted by President Donald Trump and others and twisted into criticism of cops, the military, respect for law and order, the appropriateness of protest and patriotism.
“NFL owners have been very embarrassed by this. They would like to do something but they’re afraid of Trump,” Mr. Fletcher said. “You have to look at this at the level of politics. If you don’t organize, it’s very likely that you’ll fail.”
No matter the NFL does, those interviewed said, none believed the collaboration will have any real and lasting effect on the protests that continue unabated as Blacks and others push back against anti-Black racism, police brutality, extra-judicial killings and the increase in nativism, White extremism and hate crimes. What is acknowledged but often ignored too is the fact that the NFL has a White male dominated, conservative, reactionary ownership structure, no Black majority owners and a league where about 70 percent of the players are Black.
“I wonder how long is that going to work; how long is it going to last?” Ms. Lee asked of the Jay-Z and NFL deal. “It may not matter in the short or medium term. Jay-Z has shown he’s fine with capitalism, with being the only Black in the room. The reality is we’re pushing society to be more just. I’m not going to look into the intent of other folks, but I don’t think Jay-Z’s talking about radical change and radical change is needed to change the circumstances of Black people.”
Barrington Salmon has been writing professionally in the United States, Ethiopia, the US Virgin Islands and elsewhere for more than 25 years. Barrington has written for publications as varied as Voice of America, BET.com, The Washington Times, Convergence and Diverse Issues in Education, ACUMEN Magazine and the Washington Times. He writes for several newspapers and publications including The Final Call, The Washington Informer, Black Press USA and Trice Edney Newswire. One of the highlights of his writing career was serving as Mayor Marion S. Barry’s speechwriter for about three years. His website is BarringtonSalmonWrites.com and Barrington is on social media, including Twitter and Facebook.