About a year and a half ago, I was at a crossroads.
As one of the countless Black folks who wanted nothing to do with the NFL after its blatant mistreatment of Colin Kaepernick, I began to realize that it was entirely unrealistic for my boycott, then two seasons in, to continue indefinitely. Being a rabid sports fan, I knew sooner or later that I would relent; so the question then became under what circumstances would I be willing to resume watching the NFL?
In February of 2019, Kap and his former teammate Eric Reid settled their collusion case against the NFL. That was the exact moment I reconciled my feelings about the league—begrudgingly—and after discussing the matter with a few of my homeboys, I officially lifted my NFL boycott. But by the time football returned that fall, my excitement for a sport that I had obsessed over my entire life was still very much gone. I still harbored tremendous resentment towards the league as a whole, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his cadre of bigoted team owners specifically.
Then last night, during the season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, those old wounds reopened all over again when this happened:
Which had me feeling like this:
Prior to the game, there were rumors that the Chiefs and Texans would participate in some sort of joint demonstration. Those rumors would be proven true when, before the national anthem, both teams converged on the field and locked arms for “a moment of silence dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country.”
This wasn’t even a protest. It was an act of solidarity.
And this is how the fans reacted to it?
The same people who’ve probably spent the past few months wearing “Black Lives Matter” pins around the office? The same folks who told everyone they knew how horrified they were by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers? The same folks responsible for teaching our children, underwriting our loans, serving on our juries and electing public officials?
I was so pissed I turned the TV off.
Eventually, I was able to cool down and resume watching the game, but there wasn’t much excitement to be had in watching Patrick Mahomes carve up the Texans defense and record his 16th career game with at least 3 passing touchdowns, or witness Clyde Edwards-Helaire go berzerk with 138 rushing yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut.
All I could think about was that football was no longer a sanctuary and that no matter how much I fight, run or hide, white folks will always dismiss my humanity or attempt to steal my joy.
Kap tried to warn us.
After the game, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was bewildered by the boos that had tainted an otherwise beautiful night.
“The moment of unity I personally thought was good,” he said. “I mean the booing during that moment was unfortunate. I don’t fully understand that. There was no flag involved. There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”
His insistence that “he didn’t understand” demonstrates the difference between empathy and sympathy, as well as the fact that Watt’s association with Black plight is merely a costume. In being a 31-year-old white man, Watt is entirely capable of understanding why he was booed for participating in the pre-game demonstration. He’s just not required to because his complexion provides protection—and camouflage. That onus falls on players like Mahomes, who don’t get to pick and chose whether they “fully understand” or not.
That burden is our birthright.
“We’re not going to let playing football distract us from what we’re doing and making change in this world,” Mahomes told reporter Michele Tafoya after the game.
If you can’t tell the difference between these two responses, I don’t know what to tell you. And while I commend Mahomes and others for taking their stance, I just can’t promise that I’ll continue watching.
White folks have stolen enough of my joy.