Are you ready for some football? Are you ready for some flag-waving, solemn, 15th-anniversary-of-Sept. 11 remembrances? Are you ready for some Colin Kaepernick-inspired Black Lives Matter demonstrations by NFL players? If not, too bad, because you’re going to get all of those things when you tune in for any team’s NFL kickoff today, with the exception of the last from the Seattle Seahawks.
In a move of unprecedented political cowardice and acquiescence, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin says the team will engage in a “unity demonstration.”
“To express a desire to bring people together, our team will honor the country and flag in a pregame demonstration of unity,” he said.
The Seahawks players, with this misguided and ahistorical “demonstration,” might as well paint “All Lives Matter” on their helmets and tie puppet strings to their arms. Because it’s so on the fence, this action will disappoint NFL fans who favor social change, offend “Respect the Flag” advocates, enrage those #BasketOfDeplorables who hate any activism from black athletes and, ultimately, muddle the real issues of police brutality in America.
Since the national press noticed Colin Kaepernick protesting the national anthem two weeks ago, the national conversation about race, justice and police brutality has jumped from the mainstream to the sports talk, radio and TV roundups. Predictably, Kaepernick’s brave protest brought out athletes and pundits desperately auditioning to be the NFL’s version of the film Django Unchained’s master-loving slave Stephen, hoping to protect their precious league from player activism.
Hall of Fame 49er Jerry Rice said that Kaepernick was disrespecting the flag. Professional racial sports troll Jason Whitlock said Kaepernick was being manipulated. Hall of Famer Ray Lewis criticized the protests for not “having a plan.” Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to NFL kickoff this Sunday. Anthem protests have spread to other sports, including soccer, including high school and college teams. Not to mention, Kaepernick has the No. 1-selling jersey in the NFL, and his social media following has jumped 35,000 percent in a week (Not 35—35,000!) Now, with donations, eloquent interviews and his activism, he’s acting like a modern-day Jim Brown while looking like a modern-day Jim Kelly.
While Kaepernick’s activism has inspired some to take a stand, it has inspired the Seattle Seahawks team to take a fence. Unable to take the bold step to protest collectively or the equally acceptable step of not protesting at all, they have chosen the mushy middle: #AllLivesMatter pabulum for those too cowardly to take a real stand but still wanting to be a part of the conversation.
Last Thursday, Seahawks Corner Back Jeremy Lane took a knee during the anthem at a preseason game in solidarity with Kaepernick, and to stand against police brutality. This week, team leader Doug Baldwin stated that the entire team would take some collective action on the first game of the NFL season (which is also the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks). Would they all take a knee? Would they stand in a “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose? Or could we dare to dream that an entire NFL squad would be bold enough to raise their fists à la John Carlos in 1968 right before the game? None of the above. Baldwin quoted Martin Luther King Jr., then announced through a short video Saturday night that the team would lock arms.
“We honor those who have fought for the freedom we cherish. And we stand to assure the riches of freedom and the security of justice for all people. Progress can and will be made only if we stand together,” Baldwin said.
To paraphrase that great sage and social critic Titus Andromedon, “What kind of white #AllLivesMatter nonsense is this?” Colin Kaepernick isn’t seeking unity. Black Lives Matter isn’t seeking unity. All the men and women across the country demonstrating are not seeking unity. They are seeking justice. TVOne’s Roland Martin was quick to bring the ruckus to Baldwin on Twitter Saturday, pointing out the mushiness of their “demonstration.”
I’m sure that Baldwin and the other players on the Seahawks are sincere, but their mealymouthed sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism could have come right out of the #AllLivesMatter/#BlackOnBlackCrime false-equivalence playbook. Take a knee if you want to protest police brutality or if you just realized that the national anthem is racist.
Don’t take a knee if you’re afraid of offending sponsors or fans or think that it’s disrespectful. Don’t engage in some demonstration that neither addresses the issue of police brutality nor satisfies the “Respect the flag” crowd. Further, calls for unity always magically appear after people of color make noise about injustice and institutionalized racism. Unity is a pacifier thrown at people of color to distract from the serious suffering in our community.
White police officers and politicians started calling for unity after Sandra Bland died mysteriously. Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina had nothing to say about white supremacists for years, but after nine people are massacred at Bible study, she’s calling for “unity.” Nobody was calling for unity when Cleveland cops were bragging about taking out black folks, but after Tamir Rice is killed, suddenly it’s supposed to be a Kumbaya unity moment.
Unity is the slogan for the armchair quarterbacks of activism. Kaepernick’s actions have galvanized fans and led to actual tangible support for social-justice issues. The NFL is at a tipping point for activism and entertainment that has never been seen in modern times. This “demonstration” by the Seahawks plays right into that oft-debunked notion that we can bring about social justice only by tiptoeing on the sidelines of white guilt and comfort instead of giving the ball to your biggest, loudest messengers and punching it in from the 1-yard line. The Seattle Seahawks would be better off doing nothing than taking a fence-straddling appeasement strategy that serves no one but will inevitably be used to distract from the real issue of police brutality that Kaepernick is protesting.
Taking a stand on African-American issues is hard, especially on Sept. 11, and athletes who take that risk should be commended. However, if social protest has to be scheduled based on what makes people comfortable, those aren’t really rights—they’re more like frequent flier miles.
If Seahawks coach Pete Carroll can be a card carrying 9/11 truther, then the Seahawks can definitely take a stand against the harsh reality of police brutality’s impact on black lives. Instead, they’re punking out. I hope that at the last minute, they surprise us all and do better. And hopefully they’ll realize that justice is more important than unity.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.