After we applaud Colin Kaepernick’s protesting of police brutality, don’t let the spectacle of demonstration distract us from the crooked stage of the American football field, where social ills are churned into entertainment. When the commencing whistle is blown, cheers for the game and its heroes drown out screaming acts of domestic violence, racism, sexism, militarism and greed. No, the National Football League will never host an appropriate outlet for protest unless we are objecting to the game itself.
Protesting the shield of the NFL will have more impact on American culture than refusing to acknowledge the national anthem.
It’s smart for Colin Kaepernick to sit out the national anthem in protest of state-sanctioned murder through unchecked police killing given that football is America’s pastime and there is no bigger platform. The USA Today reported “70 percent of people with a television watched at least part of one NFL game in 2014.” Millions watch weekly. Super Bowl Sunday is essentially a secular holiday. Church attendance has declined on Sundays, while the football faithful keep the sport's ratings up.
The NFL provides America’s largest stage, but it is also the largest vacuum—sucking up issues like domestic violence, child abuse and brain injury out of the news cycle and into our distant memories.
Remember when New Orleans Saints’ owner Tom Benson considered moving the team to San Antonio in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the city was on its knees? Remember when you learned of the perversely masculine locker room culture that allowed offensive lineman Ritchie Incognito to bully his Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin? The NFL combine looks and feels like a slave auction. Don’t forget there is an actual team in Washington named after a racial slur. The league’s struggle to reveal the physical impact of the game on the brain isn’t so much forgotten as it is ignored.
And then there is domestic violence. The list of perpetrators would be too long for any singular column, but an accurate one would be impossible to develop because the NFL will protect its brand at the expense of abused women. Let’s also not forget the collusion of police departments with NFL teams to protect perpetrators from the punishments many players should have received.
But when the game begins, we forget all these atrocities. Police brutality will be no exception. The game is the violence we accept.
The NFL stage can bring about awareness. Ray Rice’s vicious attack on his now wife, Janay Rice, resulted in stricter policy and greater awareness of the pervasiveness of domestic violence and cover-up. Still, constant violations of these policies are reminders of how ubiquitous hitting women is in our country. Kaepernick’s protest must move away from the NFL stage if we really want to harness its power.
One of the primary arguments leveled against Kaepernick’s method is that he has disrespected the men and women of the armed services—as if militarism has to be accepted as a good. Those who praised Muhammad Ali in death quickly forgot that he famously refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army and rejected militarism.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali asked. “The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.”
Kaepernick’s stand is noble, but clearly not as radical as some would like to portend. Ultimately, sitting out the national anthem is not a big deal. Many do it whenever opportunities are presented.
But here’s the danger: Kaepernick’s protest comes with the acceptance of an institution that grew out of our tolerance for violence, misogyny, hypermasculinity and greed. Just as we can separate our love for men and women who wear military uniforms from militarism, we can support Kaepernick and separate him from the NFL. When the NFL becomes a stage for protest, we ignore that the stage itself is broken. Consequently, his protest can empower the corrupt institution that is the NFL.
Brian Boyles, author of New Orleans Boom and Blackout, summed it up in his tweet:
Colin Kaepernick’s protest brought attention to police brutality. Now that issue is getting lost in simplistic arguments around freedom of speech and flag decorum. I wouldn’t doubt if the NFL finds a way to brand, license and sell Kaepernick’s actions for us to collect as souvenirs. Already, people are purchasing more jerseys. It’s been rumored that the creators of the “Madden NFL 17” video game will incorporate the protest.
The league can be comforted in the fact that as soon as the ball is kicked off, our gaze will be moved from the bodies on the street to the drama on the field. If we really want to support Kaepernick and bring more attention to police brutality, we need to back away from the NFL and the culture of football.
Kaepernick’s greatest feat has not been realized. He may get a punch-drunk society to realize we’re in an abusive relationship with the NFL that needs to stop.