Protesters kneeling in support of players impacted by the NFL’s new national anthem rule in front of the NFL’s headquarters in New York City on May 25, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

Tamika Mallory didn’t leave any wiggle room for misinterpretation when she took the mic after Minister Kirsten John Foy asked the crowd gathered in front of the NFL’s New York City headquarters to be respectful and not to use any foul language. Foy, Northwest regional director for the National Action Network, said that he and other activists would not let the NFL be a “proxy for a fascist president,” “resurrect slavery in the 21st century” and punish black players for protesting racism. But it was the words “black players” that Mallory said were not accurate.

“What is being said is that the niggas don’t have basic rights,” she said. “And I want to say today that Ida B. Wells, Dr. Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, the four little girls in Birmingham, [Ala.,] are turning over in their graves right now about the disrespect, the disgrace, that is happening in this country. If we as black people lay down and allow this system to continue to oppress us, we are the ones to be held responsible.”

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Her clarity set the tone as the four dozen or so protesters, organized by NAN, gathered in front of the NFL’s headquarters Friday. The league’s decision to require all players and team personnel to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem” or remain in the locker rooms had nothing to do with the national anthem. It has everything to do, as Mallory said, with saying that niggas don’t have basic rights.

The use of the word “nigga” was very specific for Mallory. To say “black men” would suggest the players have agency. “Nigga,” in the context in which she used it, clearly conveyed a message that the players are not seen as full human beings capable of exercising agency. And Mallory made it plainly clear, directly in front of the master’s house, that the black men who sacrifice their bodies for the NFL’s multibillion-dollar enterprise do, in fact, have rights.

Yet, as Mallory and other speakers articulated, it is clear the NFL sees its league as a plantation, not a place of business that employs free-thinking Americans.

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The Rev. Mark Thompson took the mic after Mallory and challenged the black players themselves.

“You can’t fear these owners and be free at the same time,” he said. “It’s a contradiction. You have no fear of permanent brain injury, but you’re afraid of some owners? All of that money in the world will not protect you from permanent brain injury and an early death. But you’re afraid of standing up to some owners? That makes no sense at all.”

There was nothing especially unique about the protest. The usual Black Lives Matter placards were prominently held up high. People claiming socialist views were present, passing along their literature. Religious leaders from difference faiths spoke.

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We were in midtown Manhattan, where much of the city’s commerce sits. People on their lunch breaks looked on as the crowd of protesters grew in size. Some of the onlookers were indifferent and had nothing to say when asked to comment on the protest. Two white men told The Root that they respected the protest and even understood why some of the players were kneeling but didn’t want to talk about why dozens of folks gathered at NFL headquarters to protest the NFL national anthem rule.

“I just want to watch football,” one of them said.

As far as New York City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams is concerned, more local and statewide politicians needed to have been at the protest because they have the power to challenge the NFL’s rule change.

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“I find it interesting that elected officials will celebrate people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, people who have risked their lives, yet [politicians] won’t risk their titles,” he said. “It’s a frustrating thing to see. We have a power and people are looking at us for how we’re going to respond.”

Jerry Peters, who is white, told The Root that he supports the protest and that it reminds him of the 1960s and 1970s, when people protested the Vietnam War. He said he doesn’t like that the players’ protest has spilled onto the field but is fine with it.

“Whether it has spilled over into the American pastime of football or the White House steps, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We have to leverage against the injustice no matter where it may be.”

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The NFL has lost viewership over the years, and some attribute it to the NFL protests, even though viewership began dropping before the protests. It is clear that President Donald Trump has a stronghold over the NFL’s owners, many of whom contributed to his campaign, and he has been using the players’ protests to gin up discord among white voters.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been the most outspoken about insisting that players stand, while New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson says he will pay the fines for any Jets player who chooses to protest.

Mallory wonders if the NFL realizes what it has done. The rule hasn’t made the issue go away, as the NFL had hoped. Instead, it has mobilized people against the league, something activists will use to their advantage.

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“It has reinvigorated the movement,” she said. “You will see that for people who were on the fence about whether or not to watch the game turn the TV off and to be less engaged. [The NFL] created more of a divide, and it won’t be one-sided.”