The NFL blunders on its social justice messaging

Say what you want but the NFL’s attempt to rectify its handling of blackballing Colin Kaepernick out of the league looks like an out of touch overreach. The way the league has gone about its part to be part of the whole social justice movement seems incredibly disingenuous to the Black community. 

The fact that the league has decided to have the Black National Anthem played before every home game opener in Week 1 of the 2020 season, shows just how disconnected the NFL really is from being “woke.” Instead of having to deal with possible fallout from whatever actions they decided to take regarding the playing of one national anthem, NFL players had to be concerned about what to do with two. 

Great. Whose bright idea was this? Didn’t the league catch enough grief just over the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner when Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback was taking a knee to quietly and peacefully protest police brutality? Having two anthems play creates an even more racial divide.

So, there’s the Black National Anthem for Black players. Then there is the other national anthem for everybody else. Is this the message the NFL really want to send?  My question is what side of the fence is the NFL now on? 

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fielding questions from the media. Photo credit: Lauren Foley via Flickr

Four years ago, the NFL (and pretty much everybody else) took a titanic hard-line stance against Kaepernick and what he was doing on the sidelines prior to taking the field to play football games. Kaepernick and other players who followed his lead had their patriotic manhood called out. The gesture Kaepernick was taking was seen or viewed as disrespectful to the military among other things. 

After that 2016 NFL season, Kaepernick has not been able to find work since. Meanwhile, police violence against Black people has pushed America on the brink of nationwide mutiny with streets in every major city filled with demonstrators protesting law enforcement’s abuse of power against people of color. 

So now, after seeing a wave of Black athletic figures, including prominent pro football players, speak out in protest of what they’re seeing, and after seeing corporate America work quickly to disavow racism of any kind, the NFL has had a parting of the waters moment and want to do the right thing. That’s cool. Was this a possible economic fallout turning point for the league to want to be on the right side of history?


What the league does not need to do is think that Black people are that simple to buy into any type of bogus appeal to our senses. We don’t need any more Steppin Fetchit moments to hide behind what the real problem is.

A protester lifts up a Black Power salute during a George Floyd demonstration on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

How in the world is Alicia Keys singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” going to bring back George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and countless of other Black and Brown bodies back from the dead after being killed by those who took an oath to protect and serve? 

How does the league releasing platform slogans like “It Takes All of Us” stop the deep penetration of systemic and structural racism? It’s not all of us getting shot and killed by law enforcement and by people perpetrating violence against Black Americans. If we go out for a morning jog, we could end up like Ahmaud Arbery: hunted, stalked, and ruthlessly killed by white vigilantes.

And please let not forget about the travesty of injustice against Trayvon Martin. Unfortunately, these stories have become almost a recurring theme in Black and Brown communities. If we’re sitting in the comfort of our own home, there is a chance we can become a victim like Botham Jean, who had his life snuffed out by a white police officer who said she erroneously entered into his apartment thinking it was hers and mistook him for an intruder. 

One of our children might have an infinity to play with a toy gun like Tamir Rice did and wind up dead for just being a kid. Worse yet, we could have our life choked out in 8 minutes and 46 seconds the way Floyd’s was when a cop decided to sit on his neck like he was chilling at the beach getting ready to put some burgers on the grill. 

When we witness the cold and callous manner in which Jacob Blake was nearly executed when he was shot in the back at point-blank range, we understand that as Black people escapism of reality is something not in the cards for us. Unfortunately, being Black in America does not come with that privilege. 

If you’re Black it means you’re marked for life. We are a constant target of the consequences to the environment in which we find ourselves to be in. Whether it’s academia, socially, professionally, spiritually, and culturally. That’s why it’s so damn insulting for the NFL to do what they’re doing right now. 

George Floyd
© Dennis J Freeman/News4usonline -Black Lives Matter (Los Angeles) holds a march and rally in downtown Long Beach, California on Sunday, May 31, 2020. The protest was held to bring attention to police violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody. Thousands of demonstrators showed up for the event.

I don’t need to hear or see Keys sing a whack version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to be inspired. Queen Latifah hosting an NFL-sponsored “Inspire Change” conversation does not move the needle for me when it comes to shaking up the racial inequality. It’s just more talking and little action.  Where is the league’s discussion on police brutality? 

People are done enough talking. Black people have been trying to get America to do right since slavery. If the league wants to really begin to do right then give Kaepernick his livelihood back. Until the NFL does that everything the league does in terms of inclusion and equality will mean absolutely nothing. 

That would be like putting the icing on a cake that’s not even there. Keys would not be propped up in the first place to do the NFL’s bidding of appealing to Black people during this country’s state of cultural warfare if Kaepernick had not lost his career for standing up to the atrocities of police levied against Black Americans. 

And yet the state of the Black male has somehow become lost in this whole social justice conversation. The talking points have been about everyone else except the Black men who make up the majority of all NFL players. Everything that the NFL does, in terms of its social justice initiatives, has come at the expense of a Black man (Kaepernick) and the lives sacrificed to make America a better place.

Los Angeles Chargers
Members of the Seattle Seahawks in a 2019 preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park. Photo by Mark Hammond for News4usonline

If the league wants to promote equality, hire more Black Americans to be head coaches. That’s a start.  If the NFL truly wants to move the needle in regards to eradicating upper-level privilege, get more Black people working as general managers or presidents of a ballclub. I am tired of seeing our Blackness exploited and placated just to accommodate everyone else except us. 

We don’t need any more tokenism. I think we’ve all had enough of all the meaningless symbolic gestures and all the song and dance routines. We need solutions. We don’t need another circus. What we saw Thursday night in the NFL’s season debut with a matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, looked like something that came straight out of a clown show. 

When Kaepernick sat and knelt during the playing of the national anthem he didn’t demonstrate in peaceful protest just to look the part. Kaepernick did what he did to bring greater attention to police violence against Black Americans and people of color.  As a result of his actions, Kaepernick has been publicly condemned by a President, found himself criticized by some of his peers, and saw his professional football career tossed into the trash heap.

Chargers versus Chiefs
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) on the move against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. Photo credit: George Laase

The NFL reached a settlement with the ex-49ers star in relation to a lawsuit he filed against the league but has never publicly apologized to Kaepernick. Four years ago, Kaepernick tried to invoke the change everyone is now talking about. No one would listen.  They’re listening now.

But that’s four years after the fact. Four years after Kaepernick stirred America’s racial pot with his kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, Floyd was murdered in front of our very eyes by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Four years after the ridicule and criticism Kaepernick absorbed for his social justice stance, Taylor lay dead on her hallway floor after being shot multiple times by police executing a middle of the night no-knock warrant on her apartment supposedly looking for drugs. No drugs were found in or around Taylor’s home. If not for the relentless work and activism of Until Freedom, the world probably would not even know Taylor’s name. 

Four years after Kaepernick awoke America’s consciousness, violence against Black people still rears its ugly head. How is the NFL really going to do to address police brutality? It’s going to take more than throwing a bunch of money at us and having kumbaya moments. That simply is not going to get it done. 

Saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t guarantee Black people equal treatment under the law. Wearing shirts or carrying around slogans does not constitute change. Tossing around financial support behind unnamed nonprofits is not going to break the cycle of police misconduct against Black and Brown people.      

As a member of the Miami Dolphins said in a released team video, “we don’t need another publicity parade.”   

Editor’s note: Feature photo credited to Brock Ward

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