Racial Inequality and the NFL

Sports & Outdoors

By Kevin White

Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in order to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. The story became national news, and fierce debate ensued. Now, a year later, Colin Kaepernick is a free agent and remains unsigned.

Let’s start by establishing an important and hopefully obvious fact: Kaepernick does not have a job because of his protests. It is not an issue of talent. Colin Kaepernick is easily one of the 40 best quarterbacks in America (40 assumes 24 of the 32 teams are using their backup spot to groom a successor, and don’t want a veteran QB as the backup; this is a generous estimate). I’d even argue that Colin Kaepernick is better than a few starting quarterbacks, such as Josh McCown of the Jets, Jacoby Brissett of the Colts and Blake Bortles of the Jaguars. Despite this, Kaepernick remains unsigned.

I don’t believe that the league is illegally colluding to prevent a team from signing Kaepernick. At least, I find it easier to believe  that 32 sets of owners, presidents, and general managers decided Kaepernick was not worth the “hassle.” I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there was collusion; it seems like an unnecessary, morally bankrupt policy that Roger Goodell’s NFL would pursue. If there’s no collusion, then what is happening to Kaepernick is totally legal. He has the right to protest, and teams have the right not to hire him because of it. Even if the blackballing of Kaepernick is legal, that doesn’t make it right. Kaepernick’s lack of a job highlights a strain of ignorance surrounding the experience of people of color in this country that runs through the franchises of the NFL, all but one of which (Jacksonville Jaguars) have white owners.

One of the arguments leveled against Kaepernick is that he is too much drama for a backup quarterback. As I said before, he could be a starter on a few teams. Furthermore, the issue is not drama or excessive media coverage. If that were the case, Tim Tebow wouldn’t have been signed multiple times. The issue also is not that he could be a locker room cancer. Richie Incognito was so cruel to his teammate Jonathan Martin that Martin left football for a season. This teammate was a starter in the NFL, a position that takes a lifetime of work to achieve. How terribly must you be treated for you to give up on a sport that has been your life’s obsession since elementary school? I’d assume pretty terribly, yet Incognito got another shot. The issue is that Kaepernick is a divisive public figure, and represents a threat to the profits of the team.

I would like to place the blame for Kaepernick’s unemployment at the feet of the owners — it would be an easy solution. But I don’t think that the owner’s personal disagreement is what keeps Kaepernick off the field so much as their knowledge that so many other people disagree. They fear that fans would stop supporting their team if Kaepernick were on the roster. And that’s where the issues is; the owners are only concerned about what the fans think. The owners are a rational group of people, and they worry most about their wallets. In a vacuum, not signing Kaepernick is an understandable occurrence that the owners make when they see that people hate Kaepernick for how and why he protests. It is ignorant, but this is a piece of America that exists, even if we do not want it to. However, this doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

olin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in order to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. The story became national news, and fierce debate ensued. Now, a year later, Colin Kaepernick is a free agent and remains unsigned.
Let’s start by establishing an important and hopefully obvious fact: Kaepernick does not have a job because of his protests. It is not an issue of talent. Colin Kaepernick is easily one of the 40 best quarterbacks in America (40 assumes 24 of the 32 teams are using their backup spot to groom a successor, and don’t want a veteran QB as the backup; this is a generous estimate). I’d even argue that Colin Kaepernick is better than a few starting quarterbacks, such as Josh McCown of the Jets, Jacoby Brissett of the Colts and Blake Bortles of the Jaguars. Despite this, Kaepernick remains unsigned.
I don’t believe that the league is illegally colluding to prevent a team from signing Kaepernick. At least, I find it easier to believe  that 32 sets of owners, presidents, and general managers decided Kaepernick was not worth the “hassle.” I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there was collusion; it seems like an unnecessary, morally bankrupt policy that Roger Goodell’s NFL would pursue. If there’s no collusion, then what is happening to Kaepernick is totally legal. He has the right to protest, and teams have the right not to hire him because of it. Even if the blackballing of Kaepernick is legal, that doesn’t make it right. Kaepernick’s lack of a job highlights a strain of ignorance surrounding the experience of people of color in this country that runs through the franchises of the NFL, all but one of which (Jacksonville Jaguars) have white owners.

One of the arguments leveled against Kaepernick is that he is too much drama for a backup quarterback. As I said before, he could be a starter on a few teams. Furthermore, the issue is not drama or excessive media coverage. If that were the case, Tim Tebow wouldn’t have been signed multiple times. The issue also is not that he could be a locker room cancer. Richie Incognito was so cruel to his teammate Jonathan Martin that Martin left football for a season. This teammate was a starter in the NFL, a position that takes a lifetime of work to achieve. How terribly must you be treated for you to give up on a sport that has been your life’s obsession since elementary school? I’d assume pretty terribly, yet Incognito got another shot. The issue is that Kaepernick is a divisive public figure, and represents a threat to the profits of the team.

I would like to place the blame for Kaepernick’s unemployment at the feet of the owners — it would be an easy solution. But I don’t think that the owner’s personal disagreement is what keeps Kaepernick off the field so much as their knowledge that so many other people disagree. They fear that fans would stop supporting their team if Kaepernick were on the roster. And that’s where the issues is; the owners are only concerned about what the fans think. The owners are a rational group of people, and they worry most about their wallets. In a vacuum, not signing Kaepernick is an understandable occurrence that the owners make when they see that people hate Kaepernick for how and why he protests. It is ignorant, but this is a piece of America that exists, even if we do not want it to.
While Kaepernick looks for a second chance, people like Greg Hardy, Joe Mixon, Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick all received one. These men were all punished (from league suspensions to actual convictions) for various crimes or accusations, but were still given contract and starting jobs. This is what stands out to me.
Owners can freely hire men who have been abusive and never lose an ounce of sleep over what the fans think. Meanwhile, they worry about hiring a man who used his platform to protest, who is in the process of donating a million dollars to various charities, because the fans didn’t like it. And that’s not the fault of the owners ­— they’re correct in their assessment. The fault lies with us as fans. As long as we as a group are more vocal over a protest than instances of abuse, the system we have will continue.

I talked to Amanda Díaz, the president of Associated Students of the University of Puget Sound (ASUPS) and a campus activist about the conflict between agreeing with Colin Kaepernick and being a fan of the NFL. Díaz expressed a belief that supporting the NFL conflicted with supporting Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement, stating, “If there’s this huge movement trying to stop the problem [of violence against various minority groups], you’re going against the problem.” She explained how she has dealt with similar conflicts; when there’s a conflict between her beliefs and her interest in material products, Díaz looks at the bigger picture: “I always try to remove myself and think about this from an eagle eye perspective … my morals and my values become way bigger than my commitment to a material object.”

Díaz admits that this is easier for some to do than others, and that not supporting the NFL happens to be personally easy for her. For those who do closely follow the league, she doesn’t call for a complete boycott: “There are ways to go around [the conflict]; it doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘No more NFL.’” Díaz singles out the money that NFL fans give to the league, and suggests not watching the games live, or avoiding purchasing a TV package with NFL games. There are ways to watch the product without giving the league money. Next time you get a cable package, don’t jump for the RedZone channel.

Week three of the NFL brought some important new developments to this case. Donald Trump, in a speech at an event in Alabama, said that NFL owners should fire anybody who protests during the anthem, and called the protesters SOBs, as reported by The Guardian. My colleague Zachary Fletcher should have a great article concerning this later in the section but I wanted to address it too.

The owners stood up for their players this past weekend, and that’s good, but it is not as if the NFL has suddenly gained any moral authority. The NFL owners essentially proactively obeyed Trump by keeping Colin Kaepernick off the field. Furthermore, many NFL owners (and some players) supported Trump’s campaign. Donald Trump has criticized groups that are his allies before. His comments on the NFL are no different, and do not suddenly mean the conflict between activism and fandom are resolved. However, the NFL athletes all showed bravery in their actions this week, and the support from the owners, however shallow it may be, is a step forward.

This weekend saw many fans threatening to stop supporting the NFL if players protested. Anybody who supports the movement the protesters are advocating for should proudly announce such support, and if any players face consequences for their protests, we should raise holy hell about it.
Despite the comments by the President, our goal as activists remains the same: to make sure that owners know it is more costly to employ those who break the law than those who use their platform to support the voiceless.

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