Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

NFL reminds us they don’t care about their players, or racial injustice

Posted on 23 May 2018 by Matt Bowers

The NFL announced today players must stand and “show respect” during the National Anthem.

The owners of the National Football League have revealed their solution to player protests, which have become a massive national (and international) debate in the last year and a half. This issue is perhaps the most daunting the league have faced in terms of their public image. 

Players are now banned from taking a knee in protest on the field, but have the option to stay in the locker room. The league can fine teams for non-compliance, but leave it to the teams to punish their own players: 

The rule change is being called a “compromise”, but it only seems to be one for the league owners themselves. Players who wish to use their platform to demonstrate against racial inequality and police brutality are being stripped of their right to. 

The argument could be made that the new policy is unconstitutional- but unfortunately, it’s technically not. NFL teams are private entities, and therefore are not covered by the First Amendment. But this leads us to the key debate surrounding this issue: how important of a role does the NFL play in our civic culture? 

The right to protest and free expression is central to a functioning democracy, and the league’s new policy to silence and stifle dissent goes against the fundamental values of freedom and liberty America was founded on. These protests are not being done as a sign of national disrespect, but rather to bring attention to racial inequality and police brutality.

After trudging through numerous public image disasters in the past few years, it seems odd the NFL has chosen this issue to be the most vocal about. If they haven’t learned their lesson yet, the relative inaction on botched domestic violence cases and the covering up of evidence in ex-players’ CTE diagnoses wasn’t received well. 

The truth is, the NFL have deep political and economic ties to the United States government and military, making the promotion of patriotism in their best interest. “Following the money” is usually a good tactic when deciphering why a massive corporation has taken a certain political stance on a hot-button issue: 

President Trump has also played a major role in catalyzing this issue and creating even more political debate and division. Most recently, Trump brought up the issue on Monday during a NASCAR event at the White House, saying “One thing I know about NASCAR, they do indeed stand for the playing of the National Anthem”. 

Back in September, it wasn’t beyond the leader of the free world to refer to a player choosing to protest as a “son of a bitch”: 

This divisive issue exploded onto the political scene and social radar back in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. A few years ago, Kaepernick probably never thought he would become one of the most important social activists in sports. 

But since the first days of the now-infamous debate, there has been an assumption that one must choose between either supporting their country or supporting social/racial equality. However, these ideas are not mutually exclusive. It is indeed possible to feel patriotic and also condemn the many complex problems caused by systematic racism and oppression. 

Whether the NFL know it or not, they are forcing a flawed idea of patriotism they use as a marketing tool while hiding under the guise of compromise. They are stripping players of their rights, and increasing their own ability to punish influential social figures for standing up to systematic racism.

With this policy, the NFL are putting themselves on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of a social awakening. In a league that’s made up of mostly black players, the formal prevention of protesting racial inequality is a massive step backward for the sport. 

The NFL Players Association, the players’ union, were not consulted during the rule change process: 

The NFL are the gatekeepers of ‘America’s Game’. They tout themselves as progressive and socially aware, but their actions show them to be exactly the opposite. The NFL need to realize they are much more than an enormous corporation: they are a social institution with massive influence and potential to enact positive social change. 

However, the great paradox is this: the censorship and compulsory nationalism being imposed by the NFL and its owners isn’t just immoral, it’s unpatriotic and un-American.  



Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons