Column: NFL keeps stumbling in fight for social justice

Four years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, this is where we are with the NFL.

Fans booing a display of unity.

Players struggling to find their voice.

The league paying little more than lip service to the issues that really matter.

And, by the way, Kaepernick still doesn’t have a quarterback job.

Looking for significant signs of progress?

You’ll need to check elsewhere.

The protests against social injustice may have started in the NFL with Kaepernick’s peaceful gesture during the national anthem in 2016, but the league and its players has been flailing around ever since to figure out a cogent path for addressing police brutality, racial inequities and, more recently, the push to get more people involved in the electoral process.

Thursday night’s season opener in Kansas City, featuring the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs against the Houston Texans, turned out to be the perfect microcosm of the NFL’s muddled, disjointed contribution to our quest to become a more perfect union.

The Texans stayed in their locker room at Arrowhead Stadium during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a song known as the Black national anthem that will be featured before every NFL game in Week 1.

Jack Easterby, Houston’s executive vice president of football operations, told NBC that the team remained out of sight so there would be “no misinterpretation of them celebrating one song and throwing shade on the other.”

It will not go down as a courageous gesture in the fight for equality.

The Chiefs did come out on the field for both songs, but defensive end Alex Okafor was the lone player to take a knee. Everyone else remained standing.

Shortly before kickoff, the teams lined up together and linked arms as social justice messages such as “End Racism” were shown on the video board. In what should have been a moment that everyone could agree on, a smattering of boos were heard from the socially distanced crowd of about 17,000 that was allowed to attend the game in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The booing was unfortunate in that moment,” said Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who is white. “I don’t fully understand that. There was no flag involved, there was nothing involved with that besides two teams coming together to show unity.”

It was another ugly reminder that opposition to Kaepernick’s crusade was never about respect for the flag, or the anthem, or the troops. It was always about not rocking an unjust system that largely benefits white Americans.

“We just want to be treated equally,” said New York Jets offensive tackle George Fant, who is Black. “Everyone needs to be treated the same. Everyone needs to be held accountable. And for people to boo? It’s unbelievable.”

While the NBA has clearly taken the lead in this crusade — the players even threatened to shut down the playoffs after Jacob Blake was left paralyzed by a police shooting in Wisconsin — the NFL has been stumbling around for pretty much the last four years.

It quickly went off the rails after President Trump turned the Kaepernick-inspired protests into a political issue, which prompted NFL owners to join the players in a supposed show of solidarity that was really nothing more than a bunch of billionaires defending their hefty bottom lines.

No one has shown any desire to hire Kaepernick, who hasn’t taken a snap since the final game of the 2016 season, his once-promising career effectively snuffed about by a league that really doesn’t want its players — a majority of them Black — to be stirring up good trouble unless it’s on their terms.

While Commissioner Roger Goodell clung to the ludicrous notion that Kaepernick’s absence from the league was merely a football-based decision, the NFL shamelessly schemed to commandeer his cause by launching a social justice campaign known as “Inspire Change” (which got a prime commercial slot during the February Super Bowl).

As racial unrest rocked the country again through the spring and summer, sparked by the shocking deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the NFL made a few guarded concessions while the players tried to settle on a coherent message.

Goodell finally conceded that the league should have listened to Kaepernick’s concerns, which was a welcomed, long-overdue gesture but hasn’t led to the quarterback being welcomed back to the fold.

The owners — even those such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, who has threatened to bench any player who took a knee during the national anthem — signaled that they won’t stand in the way of such gestures during the 2020 season. But this sudden embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement was clearly a matter of necessity than conviction, forced on them by the national reckoning over racial justice.

“We all do understand where I stand relative to the national anthem and the flag,” Jones said recently on his radio show. “On the other hand, I really do recognize the time we’re in.”

What he doesn’t recognize — or, in all likelihood, even care about — is what the protests are really all about (hint: it’s not a piece of cloth).

With an apparent green light to take the fight for social justice inside the arena, the players have been anything but unified on what might be the best approach.

The Miami Dolphins released a video saying they’ll stay in their locker room while both anthems are played before Sunday’s opener at New England. The Cowboys and many other teams were still pondering their options.

“The discussions are continuing every day,” said Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. “We still haven’t gotten a final decision about what we want to do and how we want to go about it.”

Whatever the Falcons decide, at least they won’t have to worry about getting booed at their opener against the Seattle Seahawks.

No fans will be allowed at the game because of the pandemic.

Of course, when it comes to the fight for social justice, there’s not much to see here anyway.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York contributed to this report.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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