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Professional football is an American institution. Thanksgiving dinners revolve around kick-off times. The Super Bowl remains an unofficial holiday for what is regularly the most watched TV event of the year. Fantasy football has emerged as a multibillion-dollar industry of its own. Yet amid all the prominence of being a staple of American life, the National Football League seems to be facing a gathering storm.
In August, over a thousand people rallied in front of the NFL’s headquarters in New York City to protest systemic racism and the treatment of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Hundreds of protestors lined the streets and climbed atop the plaza in front of the skyscrapers of midtown-Manhattan. Speakers, which included organizers from the Women’s March on Washington, called for a boycott of the league. Waves of red Kaepernick jerseys surged through the crowd.
And while the gathering featured chants and signs and all the other markers of protests, there was something different about this crowd. These were fans of the game. And not casual fans. These were largely people whose Sunday’s rituals revolved around consuming a workday’s worth of football.
But most striking was the fact that many said they would not be watching the NFL this year when it kicks off in September.
“When he took that knee, he it took for all my sons and grandsons. He wanted justice for all of us. Kaepernick is being blackballed because he took a stand for black people. If they don’t give Kaepernick a job I will not watch football this year. And I’m a football fanatic” – New York City native Frederick Macmillan.
Last season, then-San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before games in protest of a lack of accountability surrounding police killings.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” Kaepernick explained after a preseason game in August 2016.
Following the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract and hasn’t been signed by a team since. Many believe he is being blackballed due to the outspoken stance he has taken on race and oppression, in a league where virtually all team owners are white.
“The National Football League is much more regressive than any other sports league in the country. There is no other league where the financial stakes are higher. The NFL has always had strong ties with very conservative institutions like the Pentagon and the US Armed Forces. There are connections between Donald Trump and several NFL owners. These are things that can’t be overlooked. The thing that is worth remembering when people say sports and politics are separate is what they really mean is sports and resistance politics don’t mix. Sports and politics that require a degree of courage don’t comfortably mix. The politics of hyper-patriotism and consumerism are consistent with the politics of the NFL. It’s really a question then of who gets to be political?” says Dave Zirin, author, political sports journalist, and one of the speakers at the August 23 rally outside of NFL headquarters.
While professional football remains the country’s most popular sport, in recent years the league has come under considerable fire. Domestic violence cases have made headlines. A Frontline documentary cast a spotlight on how the NFL neglected research on the dangers of concussions. The league has managed these issues with PR savviness and a commitment to making the game safer for its players. Yet what makes this moment different is how it corresponds with the heightened awareness of the current political climate.
In a time of travel bans, ICE raids, and a continued lack of police accountability, Kaepernick’s actions seem to echo the thunder of growing dissent in the Trump era and been the lightning to wake up even the most ardent football fanatics from a slumber. And while a number of fans, including some of those rallying outside of NFL offices, said they would continue to watch the sport, Kaepernick’s protest is shaping culture, and perhaps, history.
“Colin Kaepernick is going to go down in that first tier of activist athletes – of the Muhamad Alis and Billie Jean Kings. These are people who lost something due to their politics. And that’s why it matters when athletes protest. It has resonance. The amount of time they have to make money and be in the spotlight is narrow. They are really risking something. And because they are taking that risk, it gives their protest power and weight,” says Zirin, a political sports journalist
While Kaepernick may currently find himself out of a job, he has sparked a movement that has spread like wildfire. Given that 70 percent of NFL player are black, perhaps this is not a surprise. Last year, players across the league kneeled, raised their fists and locked arms during the national anthem. However, these sparks of solidarity weren’t limited to the NFL. High school football teams, college cheerleading squads, and professional basketball and soccer players all knelt during the national anthem to bring awareness to ongoing racial injustice. Several NFL stars, including Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, have expressed that they believe Kaepernick should be playing in the league.
Outside of Sports, Support for Kaepernick Has Intensified
In August 2017, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP called for a boycott of the NFL, asking fans not to attend games or even watch them on television. Now, protests have reached the doors of NFL headquarters. But what may be most disconcerting for the league is that the calls to boycott the upcoming season aren’t simply coming from political organizations, but everyday fans.
In July, Leroy Barber, a pastor and self-described diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, released a video announcing he was boycotting the NFL. “I grew up a Cowboys fan in the ’70s and loved the game since I was a child to now. But this summer when I watched him [Kaepernick] not get signed, I saw they were blackballing this guy. I thought we needed to respond. And it’s not going to make sense if nonfootball fans are speaking out. We need a football fanatic to call fellow fans to not watch the NFL. I in no way wanted to stop watching football this year, but I feel like Colin opened a door for those of us who can speak out to do so,” Barber says.
Within a week Barber’s video went viral, adding fuel to an already fiery debate over how the league treats its players. His message echoes Kaepernick himself, suggesting that the status quo is inadequate, and that sacrifices, which go beyond the game that has been such a large part of his life, are necessary.
“As much as I love football we need to make statements and give up things we love sometimes. There are things happening that need us to step up. Go a little deeper. Shout a little louder. Wave our hands a little more to bring attention to situations that are not getting better. That’s what Colin Kaepernick did. We are still fighting for our humanity in this country and we got to make some bigger adjustments,” Barber says in his video. Barber’s NFL Kneeldown campaign will be organizing protests to kneel during the national anthem at stadiums across the country throughout the season leading up to the Super Bowl.
Is the NFL Out of Step With Player Rights?
As an American institution, it seems only fitting that football has become the site of heated battles over systemic racism, state-sanctioned violence and political expression. As the country grapples with removing the symbols of white supremacy, the larger movement for racial justice has manifested itself across nearly all facets of American life. On August 21, a group of Cleveland Browns players kneeled during the national anthem, including the first white professional football player to do so.
“Let’s just keep it point blank and simple: Black lives matter. And it’s not saying that black lives are better than anybody else. It’s saying we matter, too. And there’s too long of a history in this country that attests to the contrary. Things in this country have come a long way but the country is starting to take steps backward and we need to get back to moving forward,” says Kyle Bennett, of Meriden, Conn., at the rally in front of NFL headquarters.
Many have accused the NFL of being behind the times. Whether it comes to allowing players’ free expression, guaranteeing salaries or even the use of medical marijuana to deal with injuries, there is a belief that the NFL lags in comparison to the country, and other sports leagues, at large.
Will the NFL’s unwillingness to sign Kaepernick lead to more widespread dissent on and off the playing field, just as those who rallied in defense of a confederate symbol may have only sped up the process to remove further statues across the country?
Despite the ongoing calls for a boycott, many fans still hope the NFL can correct its ways. As Barber says, “There is a communal aspect to football that brings people and families together. As a fan, I may have underestimated that. But I see how I have used football to create so much community. And despite all the criticisms of the day, football has a unique opportunity to play a positive role in society.”
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