Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

My father was a successful high school football coach. He was an old school, three yards and a cloud of dust sort of coach. Nothing bothered him more than watching his offense fumble the football. Offenders of what he considered the ultimate football sin were made to carry a football around school all day, every day until the next game. Conversely, as a defensive minded coach, nothing delighted him more than when his defensive unit caused and recovered a fumble.

It’s no stretch to say that the NFL has fumbled in how it has handled player protests aimed to highlight police brutality against black Americans.  Since former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem in summer 2016, the NFL has struggled to respond to the negative reaction of a segment of its’ fan base to the players expressing their First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Leading the charge has been the narcissist who occupies the White House. He’s made the NFL a target for not firing players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. Apparently, he still holds a grudge as over the years, the owners repeatedly rejected his bids to buy a team.

From the beginning, the league has struggled to contain the on-the-field protests, which have also included raised fists and other gestures. (After meeting with former NFL player and Green Beret, Nate Boyer, Kaepernick adjusted his demonstration from sitting on the bench to kneeling as it is a way to show more respect to the men and women of the military). League officials have blamed the protests for dragging down television ratings.

In fairness to the NFL, some of the owners have said they are committed to supporting their players’ efforts to raise awareness of the issue of social justice. And there was a very brief moment when a few of them appeared on the field to take a knee with the players in a show of solidarity.  But their support didn’t last long as the protest gestures continued and it became clear that television ratings were beginning to suffer.  Since then, it seems that their efforts to quell the protests has only brought more attention to them.

Try as they might, the issue won’t go away.

Behind the scenes the owners have been badly divided. Some, including Jerry Jones and Bob McNair, who reportedly said they “can’t have the inmates run the prison”, were in favor of a mandate requiring the players to stand during the anthem. Other owners have been more sympathetic to the players’ concerns.  In May, 2018 the league passed a new policy that gave the players the option to stay in the locker room during the anthem. But if they did go out onto the field they were required to stand and “show respect” for the flag and anthem. If they didn’t they could be fined by the team.  Apparently, this policy was created without consultation with the NFLPA, which created more confusion and player resentment.

Two months later, the NFL and NFLPA announced a freeze on the policy. The league policy is now exactly where it was before Kaepernick first took a seat in protest.

But there is another reason the NFL has fumbled on this issue and lost control of the narrative surrounding it. And it was lost in a way that demonstrated that the league was not really fully supportive of the players.

It’s no secret that the NFL has closely aligned itself with the military and the American flag in its marketing efforts. From pregame and halftime events honoring military personnel to arranging for military plane fly overs of stadiums to unfurling football field sized American flags, the NFL’s embrace of patriotism and the military permeates throughout the entire enterprise.

So it was no surprise that many fans, pundits and the aforementioned occupant of the Oval Office tried to paint the protests as being about disrespecting America, the flag and the military. This, despite the players being crystal clear that the protest was about police brutality against black men. If the league and its owners had the courage to stand up to a segment of their fan base and rather than cowering in the face of a Presidential tweet, they would have pushed back against efforts to discredit and distort the purpose of their players’ demonstrations. They would have made an effort to set the record straight by clarifying their players’ motives and intentions. 

But let’s be honest, it’s not a total surprise that the NFL has been struggling with how to handle the protests of their players, 70 % of which are young black men. After all, those owners are old (average age is 70), white (all but two -one is from Pakistan and the Green Bay Packers are publicly owned) billionaires (according to Forbes, nineteen different owners – more than half).  They simply live in another universe than their players.

Meanwhile, NIKE has begun producing new Kaepernick apparel and has developed an advertising campaign featuring him with the tag line “”Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”.  While the ad campaign has lead some customers to burn their NIKE gear in protests of their own, sales of Kaepernick’s apparel have been brisk. And after a brief initial dip, in recent weeks, Nike’s stock has been performing at an all-time high.

So much for hoping the issue would fade away.

When you sort through all of the angst and bluster, the NFL’s reaction has mirrored the well-worn, and increasingly tiresome, meme that players should shut up and just play ball. That notion no longer rings true against the history of athletes using their public platform to highlight and protest social injustice which has always been an ingrained part of our sports heritage.

One of the most important, powerful and fundamental justifications for our society’s tremendous investment in sports is precisely because it has the potential to break down barriers and push for social change and civil rights. Using sports as a vehicle to highlight civil and human rights issues is as much a part of sports as the touchdown, home run or slam-dunk.

The irony is that when they use their brawn and bodies to score touchdowns for our team, we hold them up as role models for our children to emulate. But when they use their brains and mouths to speak truth to power, we vilify them.

One of the most important events in the history of the struggle for civil rights was Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During a time when blacks were considered, to put it mildly, second-class citizens by many and, more bluntly, less than human by others, the sight of Robinson playing alongside white teammates, all on equal footing on the field, was both instructional and inspirational. Most significantly, it had a very real, tangible and ultimately positive impact on race relations in our country.

But as in football, the game is not over until the final whistle blows. And in this ongoing struggle, there are additional plays to make.

After its’ repeated fumbles, if recent reports are accurate, the NFL may be on the verge of recovering one. According to a report in USA Today (September 14, 2018) the NFL’s commissioner Roger Goodell recently spent almost nine hours in New Orleans with other league officials as part of an event organized by the Players Coalition, which was formed by players Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin to help coordinate players’ social justice efforts. The coalition has been holding a series of “Listen and Learn” events on issues plaguing the criminal justice system.

Apparently, Goodell attended the session and was fully engaged, taking notes and asking many questions. Most significantly, he asked what the NFL could do to have a positive impact in addressing these issues. Regardless of how the NFL has fumbled on this and several other issues related to our nation’s rapidly changing cultural norms (sexual assault, treatment of women, transparency regarding the link between football and brain trauma) if, in fact, Goodell is serious in his concern and, with the support of the owners, follows through in meaningful ways, it could represent real progress. Granted, given their history, that is a big if. But let’s hope they do because the NFL’s societal influence and its’ potential to bring about real change is enormous.

More recently, the NFL took another step forward when the Carolina Panthers signed free agent safety Eric Reid, who knelt alongside Kaepernick in 2016 and continued to kneel during the 2017 season. The 26 year-old Reid entered free agency this year as one of the top players at his position but remained unsigned even while safeties with less impressive resumes found jobs.

But here’s the larger issue. The fact is, Kaepernick and his fellow players are demonstrating that they are far from being entitled athletes but rather thoughtful and determined activists with a deep commitment to social change.

They are moving the ball forward.  They are raising awareness of important issues and inspiring others to do the same. They have used the public visibility and influence that they have worked so hard to earn to influence positive change. That’s progress. That’s impact. That’s far more important than scoring touchdowns or dunking basketballs.

Rather than vilifying them, we should be thanking them. Or, at the least, providing them the courtesy of giving their grievances fair consideration. And if you don’t think they’ve risked everything, just ask Colin Kaepernick. You can’t tell me that there is no place on an NFL roster, even as a back-up, for a 30 year old quarterback who not so long ago lead his team to the Super Bowl. He’s clearly being blackballed for his activism.

Kaepernick and those who have joined him in protest know the risks. NFL players are expendable. They are merely interchangeable cogs in an enormous entertainment and money-making machine. Yet, despite this reality, they persisted.

Being a highly visible athlete is about much more than playing the game. The influence they gain is a lot like having great wealth. In the words of Pat Buckley, “There is a difference between merely having wealth and putting it to good use.” Having societal influence is the same. What’s the point of earning it if you don’t put it to good use?

Those who continue to believe that professional athletes are spoiled and entitled dumb jocks who should simply shut up and play should reconsider that notion because athlete activism, particularly in the area of social justice is not going to subside. Today’s athletes are simply continuing the work of former athlete activists such as Muhammad Ali, Dave Meggessy, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown. Current athletes are building on those legacies and continuing to use the public platform and bully pulpit they have earned to spur awareness and societal change. And given their increased access to social media platforms to spread their message to a wider audience, their activism will only increase. But it will increase for another reason.

It works.

We’re still talking about Kaepernick. And as evidenced by the formation of the Players Coalition and more savvy use of social media and other platforms athletes are becoming more effective in their protest. And there is the possibility that the NFL might actually become more involved in supporting their athletes’ efforts.

Let’s hope that Goodell and the NFL follows through on the promise of engagement and reform.  If they do, it will represent much needed and earned progress. But what if they don’t? What if the league manages a few superficial gestures and then returns to business a usual?

The answer is clear. There will be more Colin Kaepernicks waiting in the wings to continue to leverage their visibility and the platform they’ve earned as athletes to kept the pressure on.

In the words of Kaepernick himself when asked why he was protesting, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

 In our nation’s long and difficult struggle to achieve a moral, just and fair society for all citizens, rather than vilifying athletes who risk their careers by speaking out, we should respect their courage and efforts to get us to stop looking the other way and begin to pay attention. 

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