The NFL has a race problem. This certainly sounds ludicrous on its face. How can an organization with so many recognizable black stars have a race problem? In short, the NFL serves as a case study for the difference between inclusion and representation.
Want to annihilate yourselves for our amusement? Cool. Want to promote the NFL and “protect the shield”? Fantastic. Hell, the good folks over at the league will even let the players dance now. But if the players want to give a well-reasoned opinion other than soundbites at press events they’re required to attend, they could become unemployable.
Exile isn’t on the table for every opinion, even divisive ones. If you wanted to, for instance, endorse a presidential candidate while sitting at your locker—there don’t seem to be any repercussions. But raise awareness about a black issue in America, and suddenly it matters very little that 70 percent of the athletes on the field are African American.
The theory that Colin Kaepernick wasn’t good enough to play fell apart several journeymen-QB signings ago. Kaepernick opted out of his contract to give himself as much time as possible for his inevitable free agency, yet he is still without a job. Then came the peculiar onslaught of misinformation about Kaepernick’s health, financial demands and desire to play football. There have even been leaks out of the San Francisco 49ers facility about his work ethic while he was with the team; odd, given that is precisely what he was praised for while on the team.
The notion of him being a backup has been floated—but apparently he’s too good to be a backup. That’s right; the one team that brought Kaepernick in essentially said that he was overqualified to be a reserve quarterback. Combine that with Mike Freeman’s article for Bleacher Report that references an executive desiring to “make an example” out of Kaepernick, and the word “collusion” is as inescapable as J.J. Watt.
Moreover, NFL teams asked prospects at the NFL combine how they felt about Kaepernick and his protest. This sends a clear message to the next generation of players that the NFL as a collective would like to purge its ranks of those who might join Kaepernick’s cause. Why else would they ask potential members of the league about a philosophical ideology?
There seems to be a directed effort to discredit not only Kaepernick but his very protest. Although he plainly explained the catalyst behind the silent protest, it became about disrespecting troops or hating America. (Let’s ignore the incongruence of one man who laments America’s shortcomings being unable to get a job, despite exceeding qualifications, while another acknowledges that it’s no longer great and ascends to the country’s highest office.)
But Kaepernick’s exile shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As diverse as the product on the field is, the decision-makers and ownership have remained overwhelmingly white—so much so that the league implemented the Rooney Rule to force teams to interview minority candidates for coaching and executive vacancies.
The situation in the NFL stands in stark contrast with the NBA’s culture. As in football, most players in the NBA are black, but the NBA has a significantly higher percentage of minority head coaches. There are a higher percentage of personnel decision-makers who are people of color, and the NBA has had three people of color as majority owners, even though the NBA is 26 years younger than the NFL.
Moreover, the NBA lauds and encourages its stars to speak out on issues. Can you imagine a prominent NFL team protesting the death of an unarmed black teen in unison? Or picture the most recognizable stars of the NFL covering up the shield to don shirts emblazoned with the final words spoken by a black man moments before he was killed by police officers?
What may be easier to imagine is Hank Williams Jr. being the voice of Monday Night Football—the same Williams who proudly dons Confederate-flag paraphernalia and longs for the days of slavery in his music. True, he was an ESPN hire and not the NFL’s, but it’s hard to rationalize a league with enough power to (allegedly) get an ESPN show canceled for putting the NFL in a bad light being completely powerless over who will represent it in prime time every week during the season.
Any of these things (lack of diversity, Kaepernick’s expulsion, poor representation) would be problematic. Take them together, however, and it paints an uneasy picture—particularly for black NFL fans. With all the conversation about teams afraid of backlash from signing Kaepernick, perhaps it’s time for them and their sponsors to fear the reprisal of the league’s black fans who already feel alienated.