The NFL season started last week, on the heels of the racial reckoning that has swept all over the world. The 2020 campaign also kicked off with a Thursday night game in a stadium and featuring a defending-champion host team that both appropriate Native American imagery.
Although that team, Kansas City, has banned the wearing of headdresses at games, the “Arrowhead Chop”, which the team has vowed to review, was seen regularly among the crowd of 16,000-plus in attendance.
The other team in the league’s opening game, the Houston Texans, made headlines in 2017 when then-owner, Bob McNair, called players who dared to protest social inequality, the vast majority of them Black, “inmates running the prison.”
So, given that context, it was hard to take any symbolic measure to address racism during the game as a good-faith gesture.
When both teams met at midfield ahead of the game and linked arms in a moment of unity in the fight against social injustice and inequality, boos could be heard from the fans in attendance, who also threw in Arrowhead Chops for good measure.
The teams’ gesture didn’t come during the national anthem. But even demonstrations that are ultimately uncontroversial are now cast as polarizing, which is a sign the issue was never the type of protest. It wasn’t about sitting or kneeling or the anthem or the flag or the military. It was about who was protesting and what was being protested. It was always about the fact the protesting players were, and are, Black and they were, and are, asking for attention on issues that largely impact Black people.
Which begs the question: Who is the NFL trying to do all of this for?
After initially shying away from this movement and its peaceful protests, the league has leaned in. There are moments of silence and phrases supporting social justice stencilled behind the end zone. The family of George Floyd was given the honour of sounding the horn in Minnesota, except they didn’t sound the horn but instead had a moment of silence. So, they were honoured by standing beside the horn.
There are helmet decals with social justice sayings and the names of victims of violence, but that alone won’t shield Black players from the plight of being Black and the bullets that often come with it.
There were a lot of demonstrations across the NFL in Week 1. Some players knelt, some raised fists, some linked arms, some stayed in the locker room – even Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich knelt. Notably, the Atlanta Falcons and Seattles Seahawks knelt during the game, right after the opening kickoff.
Cam Newton wore cleats with “7 shots” written on them along with seven circles to signify the seven bullets fired by a Kenosha police officer into the back of Jacob Blake in front of his children.
All of that stands in stark contrast to the scene four years ago when Colin Kaepernick first sat and then eventually kneeled during the national anthem to raise awareness against social injustice and police brutality. Kaepernick brought plenty of awareness to those causes, but lost his employment in the process.
Since then, the act of kneeling has been appropriated. The NFL has reversed course. Instead of vilifying and trying to ban kneeling, Roger Goodell now says he supports it and other acts of peaceful protest.
The NFL used footage of Kaepernick and former teammate Eric Reid kneeling in the video production of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song widely considered to be the Black national anthem, that the league played before Week 1 games.
Why? Who asked for this? I love the hymn after years of hearing it on Sunday mornings in a church pew. And I can’t think of a better voice to sing it than Alicia Keys, who the league tasked with its rendition. But how does playing it Sunday afternoon before a couple hours of football address my or any other Black person’s problems? How does it demonstrate you have an understanding of those problems you claim you are so willing to help with?
The rendition was flawless, and the video slickly produced, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the act itself is performative. Nor does it negate the fact that the only place you can see Kaepernick or Reid in a football uniform on game day now is in the NFL’s archival footage or if you fire up Madden.
Furthermore, because there is controversy about how some Black players feel about and deal with “The Star-Spangled Banner”, you add another anthem for all players to navigate?
Even well-intended policies can have bad outcomes. Now the pre-game accounting has gone even further, and people are keeping receipts on which players did what for which anthem. This is creating more division than unity. Decisions are being made for participation ribbons rather than to make actual change.
The Miami Dolphins boldly abstained from both anthems in order to make sure they were using their platform for a purpose, not propaganda.
I don’t want to be hypocritical. If the NFL did next to nothing (see: the NHL), I’d be critical. So, it’s not fair to totally crush them. But it is fair to expect more. Comparison shopping on being on the right side of history isn’t good enough.
Systemic change is hard and, by definition, takes longer than a few months. So, the symbolic change will have to do for now. But four minutes of demonstrations doesn’t change 400 years of anti-Black racism.
And it’s a fine line between doing something symbolic and doing something just because it’s simple. The Duke Blue Devils NCAA football team has changed their “D” helmet decal from white to Black to “honour our teammates of colour” in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, according to head coach David Cutcliffe. We are going to need more than an adjustment of the colourway on your helmet font to change hearts and minds about race.
Naomi Osaka, however, wore seven masks during her seven-match run to the US Open title last week. Each one with the name of a different Black victim who was senselessly killed in recent years. In her post-match media availability, she spoke eloquently on the impact of their deaths and the strength of their families. And she made sure others were thinking about it also.
ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi asked, “You had seven matches, seven masks, seven names. What was the message you wanted to send?”
“Well, what was the message that you got?” Osaka replied. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
Osaka’s response brilliantly underscored the exact problem: we’ve lost our way and the NFL’s attempt is the greatest example. Instead of having conversations sparked by the protests, we are having conversations about who protested and how.
The peaceful demonstration was always a reminder to take the same energy, enthusiasm and urgency you have following your favourite sports and use it to follow public policy and engage with the community to help address these issues. But the endless accounting of what player, team and league did what is a distraction from the root problem.
Kaepernick was cancelled for taking a knee to highlight these issues in 2016. The NFL can’t white out their actions and cancel our memory in 2020.
So, when you’re watching games this week, don’t fall prey to counting stats of who is doing what, where. Focus on what is being done.
For the NFL’s position on race to go from performative to productive, they’re going to have to show their work and do things that start a conversation about what really matters.