We’ll Believe NFL Is Serious About Black Lives Mattering Once Colin Kaepernick Is Back On The Field
Football players have for years now kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. It was a sadly prescient symbol, as a couple weeks ago, on Memorial Day, police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd's neck until he died.
Mostly black athletes peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights were roundly criticized. Law enforcement was self-involved enough to interpret “Black Lives Matter" as a personal attack and corrupt enough to co-opt the phrase for their nonsense slogan “Blue Lives Matter." So, it wasn't surprising that conservatives declared “taking a knee" as inflammatory as flag burning, a spit in the face to veterans and America. Donald Trump called the kneeling players “sons of bitches" and demanded that (mostly white) team owners fire them, because he's never understood how the Constitution works.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick pioneered taking a knee and he paid the price for it. He was blackballed and hasn't played professionally since 2017. The Seattle Seahawks refused to sign him unless he committed to standing for the national anthem like a good little boy. Kaepernick's former teammate, Eric Reid, who was the first to join him in kneeling, was close to a contract with the Cincinnati Bengals but team owner Mike Brown ordered Reid not kneel. This had little to do with supposed “patriotism" or even backlash from fans, most of whom didn't care. It was about control. As Houston Texans owner Bob McNair grossly said, “We can't have the inmates running the prison." Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted an industry-wide mandate that players stand for the national anthem or face a fine. Because nothing says “the land of the free" more than involuntary expressions of patriotism. All that mattered is that these black players eventually get their minds right and accept the name “Toby."
NFL Players Video Calling on the LEAGUE to Condemn Racism and Support Black Players #NFL www.youtube.com
In the aftermath of George Floyd's death, when people fed up with continued police violence took to the streets, conservatives tried to diminish the movement with false claims that they approve of “peaceful protest," just not this kind. Football players conservatives had demonized for taking a knee quickly called bullshit. They released a powerful video on Thursday that asked whether they would have to become victims of police brutality before team owners would listen to them.
ESPN's Howard Bryant noted that team owners were all ears for conservative white players, white fans, and their white nationalist president. They were deaf and dumb to the concerns of black players. Taking a knee was an expression of collective anguish, a plea for help that went unanswered.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a seemingly contrite statement Friday, apologizing on behalf of the league for “not listening" to (black) players earlier. He condemned "racism and the systematic oppression of black people," but he never said the word “Kaepernick."
Roger Goodell APOLOGIZES for NFL Not Listening About Racism www.youtube.com
It's a good first step that Goodell acknowledges that Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were victims of police brutality (Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down by a former cop, whose connections in the system almost helped him get away with it). But the NFL should also acknowledge its role in our "systematic oppression." Professional football has profited from black labor for decades but never hesitated to punish any black player brave enough to speak out against injustice.
In 1962, Walter Beach was released from the American Football League's Boston Patriots because he organized a protest against segregated accommodations for a game in New Orleans. The white players would enjoy luxury digs while the black players would crash on couches at black families' houses or fight off roaches at a motel.
From the New York Times:
"I told them we signed up to play football, not to be segregated against," Beach said. He told Mike Holovak, the Patriots' coach at the time, that he would fly down the day of the game and then fly back to Boston after the game was over.
Identified as a troublemaker, Beach was cut the next day.
Beach went on to play for the Cleveland Browns, which held him in a “roster limbo," not using him on the field but preventing other teams from signing him. Art Modell, the former owner of the Browns, went so far as to forbid Beach from reading Elijah Muhammad's Message to a Black Man. Beach, who refused to let white supremacy “contaminate" him, told Modell bluntly, "You own this football team, but you don't own me!" Modell fired Beach in 1966.
Goodell should also say the names of Walter Beach and Colin Kaepernick. The NFL conspired to destroy Kaepernick's career, and it should immediately make amends. Anything less is just empty words.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."