by Angel Maldonado Tejada
70% of the NFL players that you watch on Sundays are Black.
It was 2016 when Colin Kaepernick began sitting during the National Anthem. After consulting with Retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided to instead take a knee as a sign of respect to those who have dedicated themselves to serving this country while also serving as a means of protest against police brutality towards Black people. He used his platform and asked us to listen, to become educated, and to become allies in the fight against police brutality and systemic racism.
“Cops are getting paid leave for killing people… that’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards,” Kaepernick said.
The message was simple: By kneeling, I am standing up for everyone who has been a victim of systemic racism in this country. It was a clear, non-violent message that addressed a problem most people had been afraid to broach for years. Yet, instead of being celebrated, he was antagonized.
Jerseys were burnt, relationships were destroyed, and Presidential candidates called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch.” Despite that, he knelt. He addressed questions with grace and professionalism, all the while knowing he might never be on an NFL team again.
“I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned to this day.
Fast forward to 2020 and George Floyd’s brutal murder has once again shined a national spotlight on police brutality against Black people. Far too often, a hashtag trends for a couple of days before it is forgotten about until the next act of police brutality. This time needs to be different, and the NFL must be a major part of that change.
A few days after the horrendous murder of George Floyd, the NFL put out the following statement (via Commissioner Roger Goodell):
That statement did nothing.
The NFL’s initial reaction was a bland, meaningless statement that refused to recognize the league’s previous shortcomings and thus did nothing to convince its players and fans that they truly believe Black Lives Matter. “The tragic events across our country” remain nameless as opposed to taking a stand and condemning the MURDERS of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It makes no mention of Colin Kaepernick, the man who asked the NFL and the country to take note of this issue four years ago nor does it give any indication as to what will be done to “[continue] the important work to address these systemic issues…” This does nothing to inspire change.
The NFL’s statement was such an abomination that it compelled a league employee to contact Michael Thomas and create a player video demanding change and accountability from the NFL.
— Saquon Barkley (@saquon) June 5, 2020
“What if I was George Floyd.”
That is the reality any Black player in the NFL has to wrestle with everyday. Despite their wealth and stardom, the color of their skin means they are disproportionately in danger anytime they have a police encounter. They can’t just “shut up and dribble” because they don’t have that luxury.
This is something New Orleans QB Drew Brees was unable to comprehend, evidenced by his comments last Wednesday.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America… And is everything right with our country right now? No, it’s not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together, we can all do better, and we are all part of the solution.”
Brees’ comments came from a place of privilege and it is a sentiment that is shared by far too many people who refuse to accept this form of protest. The backlash to Brees’ comments, of course, was swift and fierce, with teammates and players across the league condemning him for still not acknowledging what the protest meant/means. Teammates like Alvin Kamara, who has had cops called on him purely because he looked like he was robbing a bank, were disappointed in the New Orleans QB.
Im a 24 year old black man from Atlanta. Mother from africa and an illegal alien for almost 30sum years until 15 months ago. I’ve seen racism and experienced social injustice personally. maybe even on a deeper level because my mother had a foreign accent.
— Alvin Kamara (@A_kamara6) June 4, 2020
Imagine if your mother was killed because of the color of her skin, or your father, your brother or sister. Maybe it’s your best friend, or perhaps your partner. What would you do? Would you stand by silently and move on, or would you fight to make sure justice is served? Now, imagine that same conflict… for 400 years. That is the reality Black Americans have dealt with. That is the problem the very same people we root for on Sundays have to live with their whole lives.
“Leave if you’re not happy,” some might say. But isn’t protesting injustice the most American, patriotic thing to do? Instead of being outraged at any form of protest, take the time to listen to Black people. Listen to their stories, their struggles, their pain. Don’t tell them how to protest, but rather ask how you can help so they never have to protest again.
Sports can and must be used to raise awareness of a systemic problem that has no place in America or any part of the world. Donate some of your fantasy winnings to charities that aim to tackle systemic racism. If you know someone who does not understand the #BlackLivesMatter movement or does not understand why kneeling during a national anthem is used as a form of protest, educate them.
A day after his insensitive and ignorant comments, Brees apologized for failing to understand the protest and vowed to be an ally in the fight against systemic racism. When Donald Trump called him out for changing his stance, Brees quickly stood by his apology in a direct reply to the President.
Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the… https://t.co/zcw1NMZF2W
— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) June 6, 2020
Roger Goodell, in a response to the players’ video, has apologized to players for asking them to stay quiet and encouraged the right to peaceful protest.
We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv
— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020
These are important steps, but actions speak louder than words. Brees must continue to prove himself an ally for his words to have meaning and Roger Goodell must directly apologize to Colin Kaepernick while making him a part of any initiative for change. But the willingness of these individuals to be educated and to reverse course after being wrong is a good sign, a sign that there is hope and that the NFL will be a part of the change that is so desperately needed.
I am not black.
I have never, nor will I ever, experience what Black people in America have to go through every single day. My ancestors were not the slaves that built this country, nor did my ancestors have to escape plantations and travel north via secret routes and safe houses in order to experience the very concept America was built on: Freedom.
Despite the fact that I am a Latino man, I don’t have to worry about being judged by the color of my skin. My mother has never had to worry that if I fail to signal a lane change I’ll be pulled over and killed, and I have never uttered “I can’t breathe” while a knee was being pushed down on my neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
I’m tired of hashtags, and you should be too. Sports have always been a catalyst for change in society; this shouldn’t be any different. The NFL, and its fans, have an obligation to do everything in their power to make sure George Floyd is the last time a name trends because of police brutality. It’s time for change.