The National Football League’s efforts to recognize the enormity of this generational opportunity for racial justice, punctuated by a massive “We Believe Black Lives Matter” sign in Kansas City as the Chiefs hosted the Houston Texans in the season opener, still falls short of what this moment requires.
This year’s Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have hastened a long overdue national reckoning on Black citizenship and dignity.
For the NFL, this meant ending the willful ignorance that allowed commissioner Roger Goodell to stand by while powerful owners like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys conflated peaceful protest against the killing of African Americans by law enforcement with disrespecting the American flag (he has recently adjusted his stance somewhat). This latest awakening looks performative at best, and the motions the league is going through are simply not enough.
Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest prematurely ended his career as an NFL quarterback four years ago and stoked a national controversy that still seethes beneath the demands for racial justice today and the backlash against them. Amidst the largest national political mobilization for social justice in American history, key Black NFL players, including Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Odell Beckham Jr., starred in a widely circulated viral video demanding the league acknowledge the reality of systemic racism, make room for peaceful protest and embrace the ideals behind the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Within 24 hours, Commissioner Goodell did just that, illustrating — as the NBA and WNBA would later do as well — the enormous power of players whose talents are key to a multi-billion-dollar global sports and entertainment empire.
But the league’s decision to sing “Lift Every Voice,” the Black national anthem, before the start of week one of play was the kind of token gesture that pales in comparison to the heavy lifting that has yet to be done.
It smacks of the exact kind of symbolic progress that the NFL received criticism for last year after announcing a partnership with hip hop icon Jay-Z. Critics accused the league of papering over its image problem in Black communities — and over the Colin Kaepernick fallout — by using Jay-Z’s enormous brand as cover for the NFL’s social justice failings. The league’s cozy relationship with President Donald Trump and the rightward political leanings of a number of its billionaire franchise owners (several of whom have faced allegations of racist and sexist behavior) made for a massive public relations nightmare.
Jay-Z’s assertion that the time had come for Black people to move past kneeling has not aged well, to say the least.
But NFL players, who belong to a comparatively weak union in contrast to other major sports leagues, have enormous untapped power. NBA players, led by the Milwaukee Bucks and before them the WNBA, flexed their social justice muscles by staging a boycott of a playoff game in support of Black Lives Matter after a police shooting left Jacob Blake paralyzed in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Players seriously considered ending their season with no championship play and forfeiting the rest of their salaries to protest the continued anti-Black violence from law enforcement, white supremacist groups and vigilantes. The NBA’s recognition of the power of their overwhelmingly Black players has allowed that league’s owners and administrators to work in partnership with stars such as LeBron James to promote social justice on and off the court.
With polls showing a majority of Americans supporting the right of athletes to peacefully protest against social injustice, the league has run out of excuses and places to hide. The NFL, a league that has over 70% Black players, is overwhelmingly white in its front office management and in the supply chains of power and privilege that it produces globally. The league, in its past failures to support racial justice, finds itself swimming against a growing tide of antiracism in America that has been embraced by Black athletes as their awareness of the power of their labor grows. That labor is a building block for a platform that can be leveraged for enormous social change.
The Black national anthem, authored by the legendary civil rights activist and intellectual James Weldon Johnson, is a sacred song for African Americans. That song, with its depiction of the pain, violence and racial trauma that generations of Black people endured during racial slavery and after, deploys the exact promotion of Black humanity that Colin Kaepernick was pilloried for trying to embody.
Allowing players to wear cleats advocating change and T-shirts encouraging people to vote during pre-game warm ups — while encouraging — is not enough. Efforts to promote unity and social justice during the start of the game elicited mixed results. One lone Chiefs player took a knee and raised a fist while the Texans ducked the entire anthem issue by remaining in the locker room. Cris Collinsworth, the former wide receiver turned broadcaster, announced his support for the players, noting that they were trying to make positive change. Just before kick-off, both sides gathered at midfield in a display of unity, marred by audible booing from the crowd during the requested moment of silence.
Those boos illustrate the gap between some of the NFL’s fan base and the Black players who are now publicly advocating an end to systemic racism and white supremacy in America. The halftime discussion with Mike Tirico and Tony Dungy focused on the unity behind the players’ various efforts, since the George Floyd protests, to make a difference by speaking truth to power. But without a substantive plan from the league to empower players, diversify the league’s front offices and invest a greater portion of the NFL’s billions of dollars to promote anti-racism and social justice, it all just feels performative and condescending.
Perhaps the best moment came during an Adidas commercial featuring Kansas City quarterback and Superbowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, who discussed the need for social change and for speaking out against injustice. Mahomes, who recently signed a $450 million dollar contract extension, represents the most important player in the league and even his scripted candor proved refreshing when measured against the start of the game.
But change comes around when least expected. The owner of the Washington Football Team (formerly the Redskins) refused to change that team’s name, until compelled by the forces of recent history. Other breakthroughs abound, including Washington naming the first Black president of an NFL team franchise in history. These recent developments, along with the commissioner’s vow to support players taking the knee this year, are all hopeful, if incremental signs of progress. The NFL should and must do more.