Almost two years after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his protest of police brutality during the playing of the national anthem, the NFL is still busy trying to punish black players for doing the same thing. Instead of worrying about its declining viewership or their problematic past relationship with the racist founder of Papa John’s pizza, the league’s executives and franchise owners want to make it as difficult as possible for players to speak out against an issue that disproportionately impacts black and brown people—thereby impacting the same demographic group that comprises the majority of their players.
Addressing social issues isn’t foreign to the NFL. In the past, the league has previously worked to bring awareness to issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. But they seem to have a very big problem with their players exercising their right to free speech and protest to bring attention to racial inequality. The message from the almost exclusively white male head honchos (and a number of their fans) is loud and clear: shut up, black men—and simply throw the ball.
Two months ago, the league developed an anthem rule which forbid players from taking a knee or sitting if they are on the field while the national anthem is playing. They took this rule even further to say that any teams with players that do not stand for the anthem will be fined. The great irony here is that anyone who has actually been paying attention for the last two years should know that this is not a protest of the anthem. Not a single player choosing to take a knee is protesting America’s official national song (though there’s plenty there to take issue with).
Instead, it is a moment they are using to bring awareness to the fact that our country is not, despite all its claims, treating all its citizens fairly— particularly with regard to race. Moreover, it wasn’t until 2009 that NFL players were even on the field during the playing of the anthem for primetime games (though they were for day games). So this “tradition” that certain folks are using as an excuse to justify their racist need to control black NFL players wasn’t even always a thing, and there certainly weren’t rules prohibiting taking a knee.
That is, until Donald Trump came along.
Because he is a racist who cannot help himself, Trump made a spectacle of player protest last year and riled up his rabid base, who couldn’t wait to call black NFL players ungrateful sons of bitches. After all, it enrages many of them to see black people with money complain about anything, since they think black people are so inferior and undeserving. Never mind the fact that these players have had to sacrifice their bodies and brains for a brutal sport that is designed to entertain a public that actually doesn’t care about their safety and well-being. NFL team owners, many of whom donated to Trump, jumped on the bandwagon.
Not only was the anthem rule placed into effect, the Miami Dolphins went on record this week and decided that they were going to suspend players for up to four games for protesting. According to SB Nation, the team even wrote up an anthem code of conduct for its players:
A nine-page discipline document obtained by the Associated Press reportedly contained a brief section on “Proper Anthem Conduct.” It included the possibility of “a paid or unpaid suspension, a fine or both” for players who participate in protests during the national anthem.
As sportswriter Dave Zirin said, this is not about the anthem. Instead, it’s a reflection of the pervasive racism and white supremacy among league owners and fans.
This decision didn’t sit well with players. It’s not only a very obvious racist tactic to silence black bodies, it also means the NFL doesn’t like free speech or peaceful protest.
Some have said that as a private employer, it’s within their bounds to do. Perhaps it is. But it certainly isn’t a good look. And it’s also questionable to demand that players engage in forced patriotism—particularly patriotism-for-profit. Let’s not forget that the Department of Defense and NFL have had a nice little contractual agreement for years that uses our taxpayer money to pay for these patriotic displays. We don’t have the money to get kids in Flint clean water or electricity and disaster relief to people in Puerto Rico, but we’ve got enough money in the coffers to pay for garish military displays before football events. Hmm ... sounds fishy, doesn’t it?
At any rate, now the NFL is walking back its anthem rule. Right after it was reported that the Dolphins were going to bench players for protesting, the league and the players association put out a joint statement that they are talking and trying to work things out. Time reports the statement, in part, reads:
“The NFL and NFLPA, through recent discussions, have been working on a resolution to the anthem issue. In order to allow this constructive dialogue to continue, we have come to a standstill agreement on the NFLPA’s grievance and on the NFL’s anthem policy. No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing.”
This shows the immense stupidity of the league executives and owners who signed off on this awful policy but who had not prepared for the pushback that would ensue. Legal and civil rights activists went after the league for enacting a policy that is fundamentally unAmerican.
The truth is that league owners and executives want black bodies to make them rich and bring home championships, but don’t want them actually talking about what being a black body in America really means. To that end, it would be great if all of the black players and those who stand in solidarity with them refused to come out onto the field for the anthem for the entire season. But we know they won’t.
In the meantime, the controversy will go on. Trump will still call these players ungrateful and suggest violence against them. His base will happily follow suit. League executives and owners will go on to make millions off the backs of black players, but won’t support them as human beings. The players will continue to be the villains in this narrative, instead of white supremacy. And more unarmed black people will be killed by police but we’ll be distracted by arguing about players on their knees, instead of focusing on the real issue.
What a waste of an opportunity to actually do something about a real problem. When it comes to race, this country, for all its resources and wisdom and technology, is really beyond ridiculous.