The National Football League (NFL): Race, and Race Relations in America

On Wednesday May 23, 2018 the NFL owners issued a new policy in regards to “kneeling” and threatened to fine teams whose players refuse to adhere to the policy, which reads in part[1]:

1. All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.

2.The Game Operations Manual will be revised to remove the requirement that all players be on the field for the anthem.

3. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the anthem has been performed.

4. A club will be fined by the League if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.

5. Each club may develop its own work rules, consistent with the above principles, regarding its personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.

6. The commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem

Response, either in support or opposition, was swift. President Trump, Vice President Pence and Representative Peter King (R, NY), who compared taking a knee to the NAZI salute[2], came out strongly supporting the NFL ban on kneeling, while academics like Harry Edwards, tennis stars like Martina Navratilova, late night TV hosts, comedians, etc. all came to the same conclusion that the NFL owners made a grave mistake in issuing this policy.

The NFL owner’s decision to implement a “national anthem policy” is yet another illustration of a Black World/White World and the distance between them. As soon as the decision was released publicly, and President Donald Trump began to tweet about it, racial dividing lines were drawn, with the majority of whites (52%) surveyed supporting the NFL’s policy and the majority of Blacks (48%) opposing it.

There are at least 3 reasons why this decision is perceived in racial terms, as was the case with the Rodney King verdict (1992), the OJ Simpson trial verdict (October 3, 1995) and again in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

” Experiences with being “policed”
” Resentment of the perception of Black success
” Tolerance for tyranny

At the root of the “kneeling” protest initiated by Colin Kaepernick is the issue of police brutality. Kapernick, like many other Black athletes, including LeBron James, protested, on the field (or court) of play the killings of unarmed Black men, including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Even President Obama declared that “if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Police violence is an ever present experience in Black communities and these murders hit close to home for many Black men, including professional athletes. For many in Black America, seeing Black athletes take a knee to draw attention to police violence was empowering, giving voice to their own experiences, be it with police brutality or simply being “policed” in Starbucks or while having a BBQ in a park.

In contrast, white Americans are rarely policed and never for being in places they “don’t belong.” Many white Americans view the protests by NFL players as over-exaggerated at best and trying to drag the country back into discussions of our dark history of slavery and Jim Crow at worst. For many in white America, Black people’s insistence that race still matters is part of the problem, part of the reason we can’t get past race.

There is ample data that suggests that whites resent Blacks who they perceive as encroaching on “their” space, and this holds true even for spaces that today are dominated by Blacks, like the NFL and the NBA. And, as popular as Black athletes are among white fans, they are not willing to extend to them all of the rights and privileges associated with their elevated status. As Ann Coulter said of LeBron James: “Shut up and dribble” When Colin Kaepernick takes a knee, whites overwhelmingly see this as an example of Blacks not behaving as they should. Of Blacks being “uppity.” And, thus, when the NFL owners and the president of the United States put Blacks back in their place, whites feel in some way vindicated. Blacks are not allowed to be “too” successfull and they certainly aren’t allowed to flaunt that success in any way that implies that their success translates into power off the field or court.

What is perhaps most interesting in this discussion are the data on authoritarianism in political leadership. The data[3] tell us that whites who feel more threatened by “people of color” are more likely to support authoritarian leadership. Specifically, the more likely white people are to say that they don’t want immigrants or Black people moving in next door, the more likely they are to support military rule or authoritarian leaders who ignore laws. This particular finding may, in part, help explain the overwhelming support of the NFL ruling among white Americans. Not only because it is viewed as the NFL is seeking to suppress Black athlete activism, but because it was endorsed by President Trump, whose overall approach to governing has been autocratic and with disregard to well established norms, laws and policies.

And, this is important, because, if this is the case, then no amount of arguing about the legality of the first amendment or the right to protest will move the needle of support among whites because those who support these kinds of autocratic decisions are not persuaded by law. That is, they are comfortable with this type of leadership, in this case the NFL owners, and President Trump, defying the laws in order to maintain the racial order.

The singular question that remains, then, is to what degree will the NFL players protest the ban on the protest. Will the players “protest” by choosing to remain in the locker room while the anthem is played and sung? Will some players continue to take a knee and pay the fines, or have the fines paid by the franchise owners as the New York Jets have promised? Will they support the lawsuits by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and strike, as Major League baseball players did in 1994-95, a strike which cancelled the entire 1994 post-season, including the World Series? And, will actions by the players break on racial lines just as public opinion about the NFL ruling has?

I predict that if the NFL players do anything at all, which I think is unlikely, that any protest will in fact reflect the racial divisions in the country more broadly. Many Black players may wonder if they will be the next professional athlete mistreated by the police, as Milwaukee Buck’s player Sterling Brown was, a fear none of their white counterparts will ever have to face.

This latest ruling is not only a` “litmus test” for shared governance in the NFL, but also for race relations in the United States, exposing once again that Black World and White World are two different places to live in, even in America.


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