Politics are here to stay in the NFL

The times, they are a-changing for NFL thought leaders, players & fans. This is only the beginning.

The NFL will no longer receive a free pass from politics polluting their vast money-making enterprise. The movement spawned by Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protest of police violence against people of color is now the new normal.

Politics are here in the National Football League. Politics will stay.

Good/bad/right/wrong — no matter

The door is now kicked open. It took a lot of risk on the part of several NFL players to bring attention to the issue of the mistreatment of people of color by police — but the issue is now out in the open.

Often misconstrued as a slap in the face to the U.S. military or the basic principles of America, the current NFL player protests occurring during the singing of the national anthem are not decreasing in occurrence. Right or wrong, better get used to it, NFL fan.

And there’s more. This is just one issue. Now that the standard has been set, count on it continuing for this issue — and beyond. The abuse of police force is not an issue easily solved. Also count on the gesture (and others sure to come) to spread and splinter for other injustices suffered by minority groups represented by NFL players. This is America, after all. There are plenty of injustices to go around.

The NFL, for all its stodgy, conservative, rich-old-white-male power structure and mostly white fan base legacy underpinnings, is far from the leading edge of social change. This is the last thing the NFL’s powers-that-be want for their impossibly lucrative money-printing popular culture monolith.

And so the NFL power brokers have acted accordingly. Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed. Is Kaepernick being blackballed? The debate rages on. What cannot be debated is that his protest has had a distinctly chilling effect on his career. To wit:

  • New York Giants co-owner John Mara, stated “a lot” of fans had told him, “If any of your players ever [protest the anthem], we are never coming to another Giants game.”
  • Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, claimed he “embraced” nonviolent protest but didn’t “like the way [Kaepernick] did it.”
  • New San Francisco 49ers’ general manager John Lynch stated that he believes that if Colin Kaepernick wants to play football, he should just say so — a condition that would not exist if it weren’t apparent that there are serious doubts about Kaepernick’s commitment to social justice. In other words: Tell people what they want to hear if you want to keep playing.
  • Lynch went on to call the protests “divisive.” He has since expressed regret for labeling it thus. If you’re keeping score, that’s three well-known public utterances just on this one subject by Lynch (advising Kaepernick, calling protests divisive, then walking back that claim) by Lynch, who is only a few months into his job.

Politics are not going away. They are part and parcel with the NFL henceforth. And even people in positions of power are going to be careful about what they say publicly about it.

Workin’ for a livin’

Colin Kaepernick may have sacrificed his career for a cause. He did so willingly. Let’s not forget either aspect. He remains unemployed while lesser talents get jobs in the NFL at the position he plays. The Kaepernick situation begs the questions: What’s next? Who else can/will step up?

Because Kaepernick’s career status is not only having an effect on just Kaepernick. With comments coming from owners, general managers and coaches, socially conscious NFL players understand the ramifications. In today’s NFL, it is apparent that the cost for protesting anything varies by your contract status and value to your team (and the greater league).

From espn.com: “It’s going to affect your job, your endorsements and your money,” said [the Tennessee Titans’ DaQuan] Jones, who joined the Titans’ 2016 protest a couple of weeks into the regular season. “Someone like me, going into my fourth year, I’m trying to get paid too. A lot of teams will look down at that and say, ‘He’s a Colin Kaepernick.’”

After Michael Bennett sat for the national anthem before an exhibition against the Chargers, he said, “I want to be able to use this platform to continuously push the message … of how unselfish you can be as a society. How we can continuously love one another and understand that people are different; and just because they’re different, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t like them.”

Michael Bennett is not the only Seattle Seahawks player to be wrestling with the decision to stage a protest. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin is considering joining his teammate in his stand against social injustice and racism. According to Baldwin, “We will see how we can support Mike in this situation.”

Why not just stand up and be counted along with Mike? Because to the NFL players, the message is clear: “What is it about?” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman asked. “It’s not about football or color. It’s about, ‘Boy, stay in your place.’”

That place? It’s on the NFL field, between the lines. You can be outspoken like Bennett, Baldwin or Sherman if you have 1) the contract and 2) the talent to amaze. Ditto for the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins. As soon as you don’t? You’re Colin Kaepernick.

Your beliefs and actions may be on a spectrum, but when it comes down to roster & public relations decisions, the toggle switch is either on or off.

The Oakland Raiders may be about to test that theory. Famed individual Marshawn Lynch (back in the league after a one-year hiatus) is either protesting … or he isn’t. From Sept. 2016: “I mean if you’re really not racist, then you won’t see what he’s (Kaepernick) doing as a threat to America but just addressing a problem that we have,” said Lynch.

From August 2017: (according to Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, in reference to Lynch staying seated during the national anthem) “He said, ‘This is something I’ve done for 11 years — it’s not a form of anything other than me being myself,’ ” Del Rio said in a post-game news conference. “I said, ‘So you understand how I feel, I very strongly believe in standing for the national anthem. …’”

So in 2016, Lynch was down with Kaep’s protest. In 2017, “I’m just bein’ me, like I’ve always been.” The difference? Lynch is back in the NFL. For now. And we can see that Del Rio is also in the Hue Jackson / Pete Carroll camp of being in favor of remaining employed. Lynch will soon find out if his looks-like-it-could-be-a-protest gesture has any impact on his professional prospects at cut-down day. His coach has already indicated where he stands. Lynch’s attempted comeback from a year off after a poor 2015 season are in no way aided by a political statement.

Ted gets political by trying to sound apolitical: Packers general manager Ted Thompson said: “This is a free country, in my opinion, and free people can do what they like.”

NBA is out in front

The NFL is hardly the tip of the spear. The NBA has long led in tolerating players expressing political beliefs. Some recent examples:

From the New York Times: “If Kaepernick were a basketball player, things might be different. In the NBA, the biggest stars routinely share their opinions on a range of thorny social issues. Top coaches, including Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, have been critical of President Trump. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, was widely lauded for permanently barring Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was caught on tape using racist language.”

From Slate: “ LeBron James started to find his voice before Kaepernick found his. The country’s most famous athlete began to speak out more consistently and forcefully after the quarterback took a knee. “I have this platform and I’m somebody that has a voice of command,” James said at a charity event on Tuesday night, speaking about the events in Charlottesville, “and the only way for us to be able to get better as a society and us to get better as people is love.”

It probably also helps in terms of job security if you are a current NBA champion, as is the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant:

Can you, NFL follower, imagine NFL players taking to pre-game warm-ups wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts? You may need to adjust to getting used to that and more.

2014

The NFL’s national anthem protests may be bothersome to many, but the NBA is way ahead in terms of things to and forms of protest. Expect America’s most popular sport to catch up sooner rather than later.

The right side of history

Estimates opine that the NFL’s current fan base is anywhere from 50 percent to 77 percent white. For now. An Experian Simmons study from 2007 showed that 83 percent were white. The NFL’s fan demographic is shifting toward a more diverse population (including gender and age diversity) and the NFL will be forced to shift along with it.

To be clear: White people are not a problem. Intolerance for diversity of thought is a problem. If you’ve met people before, you know that intolerance is not limited to any one race, gender, social class, religion or age group. The problem now facing the NFL and its fans is more one of competing with their old selves. The NFL is in a change-or-perish moment.

The old way of thinking still holds a lot of sway. The NFL clings to its top-down, hierarchical business and football management. Authority is king. It is difficult for alternative voices to be heard — certainly without career-altering ramifications. But that is the very nature of free speech: We each have the right to speak our minds and follow our truths. It does not mean we won’t be held accountable for those beliefs, good and bad, for reasons good and bad.

The in-game and online shout-downs of NFL players using the national anthem to signify protest are legion. There is no shortage of outrage (thanks, internet!). But we may have passed the first-down marker. Fans are not only being encouraged to accept player protests, they’re demonstrating their own acceptance.

Phase two of any revolution includes acceptance. Welcome to phase two:

The outraged are not the only voices being heard. We’ve reached a new phase of wokeness with respect to NFL players and now NFL fans. How long until NFL owners join in? I would guess not long. Because, the man paid an impossibly large sum of money to lead and protect their interests is now outwardly supportive of NFL players’ rights to express their political views.

“… We have to understand that there are people who have different viewpoints,” said NFL commissioner Rogers Goodell via ESPN. “It’s something that I think everybody wants. The national anthem is a special moment for me … but we also have to understand the other side. People do have rights, and we want to respect those.”

In Georgia, at least, fans now have official boycott movements to consider. On Friday, Aug. 18, the Atlanta NAACP announced a boycott of the NFL “… if Colin Kaepernick is not on a training camp roster and given an opportunity to pursue his career.”

Beyond Atlanta, the NFL is also subject to a new fan movement with fans, led by pastor Debleaire Smith of First SDA Church in Huntsville, Ala., warning the NFL “I’m blacking you out.” The movement, as can be seen on YouTube, calls on fans to cover their team jerseys in black shirts in protest of Kaepernick’s “silent, peaceful protest.”

Again, politics. Again, not going anywhere. Coming to an NFL game near you.

© julian rogers

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