“You’re going to ruin your brand.”
That was the text I got from a colleague after going on a Sunday political talk show and talking about being in Atlanta over the weekend to cover and watch Super Bowl LIII. They were trying to warn me that good conscious black folks shouldn’t be watching the NFL at all, and if I was, it should be in secret, like a nasty smoking habit or watching Friends on Netflix.
Being in Atlanta on Super Bowl Sunday, even if I was here covering other events, was tantamount to wearing a MAGA hat with a Brexit tie while wearing an #AllLivesMatter cardigan.
Not a good look.
Of course, I’m not concerned about branding—I write opinions and being my authentic self is part of the job, but yes, I never stopped watching the NFL. While The Root as a staff, label and an organization has stopped covering football and my fellow Root editor Stephen Crockett has been roasting folks who still watch the league every couple of weeks, I have continued watching, undeterred.
Throughout the NFL season I quietly and casually talked to lots of people about how they felt about the league, and why they were or were not watching. Which, now that the season is over, made it easier for me to understand why I was watching. I watched because at the end of the day, I didn’t care. It was really that simple.
Not that I don’t care about institutional racism or criminal justice, I just didn’t care to make the NFL the place where I expressed my resistance to those pervasive elements of American society. I get it, for many people the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick was the final straw for a league that is also terrible on player domestic violence, concussions and dealing with peaceful protest. Why does a league with over 70 percent black players have hardly any black coaches? In a league that produces more black wealth than any other American sport how come the NFL has conspired to keep men like Reggie Fowler in 2009, and yes, even Bill Cosby, from buying franchises? (Yes, at one point Cosby was trying to buy the Cleveland Browns, I guess because NBC was just too complicated.) The catch is, just about every sport in America is built off the exploitation and abuse of black bodies. From shipping in poor brown Dominican kids to play baseball to luring kids to white “prep schools” to play basketball. Don’t think that figure skating or gymnastics are immune either, and those of you pointing out how more ‘progressive’ the NBA is, do you really think Donald Sterling was an anomaly?
I know what you’re thinking: “Jason this is just whataboutism. We’re talking about Colin Kaepernick and the NFL—who cares if other sports are terrible?” The thing is, I do. I also think the Olympics and World Cup are grotesque exercises in oppression and excess. So I can stay consistent and avoid all sports (and let’s not even get into Hollywood) or I pick and choose. I firmly believe in everybody’s right to pick and choose where they want to put down their flag and make a stand for something larger than themselves. For some people that’s boycotting football until Colin Kaepernick gets hired, for some it was boycotting South Carolina until they removed the Confederate flag, heck I haven’t set foot in a Denny’s since the ’90s and I used to love their Grand Slam breakfast. Further, while Colin Kaepernick is never getting back into the league, boycotters got their revenge last night because the only acts that would perform at the Super Bowl halftime show were your suburban tween cousin’s favorite group, Maroon 5 and an Andre-less Big Boi. Mission Accomplished.
Talking about the NFL boycott over the course of the season taught me a lot. There really didn’t seem to be much of a relationship between who did or didn’t watch, politically, culturally or otherwise. A 40-something-year-old friend working in IT stopped watching the NFL and even shut down our fantasy football league, but then we went together to a Super Bowl party. Another friend, a queer millennial woman and full-time activist was still watching the NFL and didn’t care one way or another. A friend who works for a VERY liberal presidential candidate actively posts about football on Facebook then talks about the Fight for 15 and the need for tangible black policies from Democratic presidential candidates in others. A few weeks back, I asked a friend of mine, a Gen X black woman organizer, if she was still watching football and her answer surprised me.
“Look I’m down with Kaepernick, and what he believes in, even if he don’t vote,” she said. “I support him. I fight against our criminal justice system. But not watching a damn game, nah fuck that.”
She paused for a minute then got very personal.
“My brother has been in jail since 1997, on some shit he didn’t do. I know what [criminal justice] is doing to black people, to my family. I don’t even know him anymore, it’s been so long he’s a different person. But you know the one thing that we can still talk about? The one thing my brother and I can still share, even while he’s in prison? He still gets to watch football. And every week all season we talk football.”
These activists aren’t any less committed because they didn’t boycott, any more so than the non-activist folks I know who did boycott have suddenly achieved some Super-Saiyan level of woke-ness. Sometimes as a community we romanticize and prioritize one protest over another, when it’s just not that deep. LeBron James supports Colin Kaepernick by wearing his jersey, but he was also watching the Super Bowl. I know a prominent journalist who is boycotting the NFL but talks all the time about watching college football. (The version of football that’s just as bad and just a racist, but they also don’t PAY anybody!) Whatever works for you.
Boycotting the NFL is not the modern-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. That was a collective action in an apartheid state to get full access to a public service that black folks were paying for in taxes but couldn’t freely use. Watching the NFL isn’t like buying R. Kelly’s music. That’s directly paying an unrepentant serial predator of black women and girls.
Watching the NFL is more like, eating meat, or buying sneakers, or watching porn. You rationalize the individual pleasure you get out of it, while knowing full well that you’re contributing to a system that is built on exploitation. You could stop, but you balance the scales in some other way by buying recycled toilet paper. Or maybe you just don’t care and realize that there are so many horrid systems that you participate in for food, pleasure or even employment that you’ll save your activist passion for specific events like not crossing the picket line to stay at fancy hotel or refusing to buy overpriced coffee from a megalomaniac who’s whole business model is fancified gentrification and third world labor suppression. You get to choose.
At the end of a night of pretty lousy football—yes, the Patriots won again—I looked around the room of my friends in East Atlanta, most of whom had scaled back from the NFL in some way or another this year. They quit fantasy football, or watched fewer games, or dropped their season tickets. I did some of those things, but not all. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll watch the NFL next season, Roger Goodell could donate 50 kajiliion dollars to social justice and that wouldn’t make the league any less exploitative. Colin Kaepernick could get picked up by a team tomorrow and that wouldn’t make the NFL owners any less racist. I don’t choose to make the NFL my stand, but if I do I promise that doesn’t make me any deeper or more woke than the day before, and it won’t do anything for my “brand,” it just means I decided which of the dozens of horrible systems I participate in I’ll stop supporting for awhile.