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How The NFL Is Whitewashing The Protest Movement

The league is working hard to neuter the movement.

Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones kneels with team. Image by AP Photo/Matt York.

It can be hard to remember exactly why Colin Kaepernick began sitting and, then, taking a knee during the national anthem back in 2016, but here’s a gentle reminder: Kaepernick wanted to draw attention to the systemic racism that very much remains central to the entire American experiment and to the use of state-sanctioned violence and inequitable treatment at the hands of law enforcement to maintain that status quo. Following a conversation with former Navy SEAL and NFL player Nate Boyer, they figured out a way for Kap to protest that did not “disrespect” those who served. But Kaepernick and all those who followed were not “protesting the anthem” despite endless misleading headlines, barked talking points, and bleating tweets.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

There. That’s what’s at stake. That his protest took place during the anthem is symbolically meaningful, given that playing it before a football game is a political act in and of itself. No one is protesting or even disrespecting the flag, America, the military, or any combination thereof, as a noted defender of waterboarding claimed. And none of this indicates that the NFL “hates America,” as a Breitbart blogger howled.

(Said blogger cites the NFL’s strict rules regarding apparel as “evidence” but either leaves out or is unaware that the protestors are not in violation of the NFL’s collectively-bargained rules. He also conveniently forgot that the Department of Defense paid NFL teams $10.4 million in exchange for wrapping their arms around every troop they could find plus military flyovers and NFL stadium-sized displays of the flag.)

But the vast bulk of those angry with NFL don’t want to have a conversation about race at all. For a prime example, here’s former congressman and current Twitter troll, Joe Walsh:

The president certainly doesn’t want to talk about race. But via off the cuff remarks delivered while hitting the campaign stump on Friday and then a fusillade of tweets that continued through Wednesday, he did what he always does — draw more attention to himself. If such attention also appeals to and flatters his white supremacist base, all the better.

Over the weekend and through Monday, the NFL responded, with close to 200 players kneeling or locking arms. The NFL, though, had no desire to talk about mass incarceration or a president who lobs "jokes" encouraging police brutality or a Department of Justice that wants to curtail federal oversight of police departments, while arming them with military-grade equipment.

The NFL — a massive corporation so hell-bent on selling itself as the paragon of virtue and All-American ideals that it sometimes resembles a jingoistic nation-state — had to come up with a response that walked a very narrow line. It had to be seen as supporting its workforce (but not really) while not “offending” its customers, which, given the intellectual dishonesty employed by those screaming that NFL had gone full “social justice warrior” (ha!), was never possible.

NFL owners offered largely softball critiques of Trump’s rantings, calling them “offensive,” “divisive,” “inappropriate,” and even “disrespectful,” but none said a word about race. The closest any of them came was to support the “issues” brought up by the protests and the need for “positive change,” but again, those issues and what needed changing remained unnamed. Some owners even went so far as to privately let their players know that they’d be angered by even the most tepid forms of protest.

But for the real coup de grace, a gaggle of bespoke suits and what’s presumed to be an army of consultants worked with Goodell to come up with their answer: unity.

“Unity” is meaningless, but it gave the NFL the means to neuter and whitewash the protests. “Unity” gives anyone that needs it the means to avoid the uncomfortable realities of race in America. But the word “unity” was peppered throughout the reported descriptions of what transpired during week three, until it could mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean. In a statement released by the Green Bay Packers calling for “unity,” they reminded fans that they were “connected like the threads on your favorite jersey.” It’s shocking the Packers didn’t include a link to the team store.

Because If Trump has mastered turning any story into a personal grievance, the NFL has equally mastered the ability to sand away any rough edges of real social conflict, like turning domestic violence into a sea of pink ribbons, and emerge on the other side with yet another branded lie.

Some have been fighting the good fight, trying to refocus the attention on the injustices that spurred the protests and the naked hypocrisy of owners now trying to protect their billion-dollar properties. Carmelo Anthony, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward, spoke truth to power in an interview with USA Today, and this monologue from Fox Sports 1’s Nick Wright deserves your attention:

But as a whole, it worked. It shouldn’t have, but it did. Corporatized nothingness was conflated with actual solidarity. Arms were linked between boss and worker, whether or not labor wanted it so, to create a human — and most importantly from the NFL’s perspective, a revenue-protecting — shield.

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who wrote a nice check for $1 million for Trump’s inaugural committee, should not get to line up with his employees, grimly stare into the distance and wipe away his complicity. As a whole, eight NFL owners donated $7.25 million to the committee, one of whom — the New York Jets’ Woody Johnson — is Trump’s current ambassador to the United Kingdom.

By Monday night, the stage had been neutered enough that the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, could grin, take a knee, and posit himself as a member of the #resistance. (Like Khan, Jones gave a cool million to Trump.) Maybe he forgot that he told a group of friends last week, long before all this flared up, that he wasn’t cool with any protests during the anthem. Per Fox Business. “[The anthem’s] not the place to do anything other than honor the flag and everybody that’s given up a little bit for it,” Jones said. Yet Goodell tweeted his approval:

Enough people fell for this marketing scheme that Sports Illustrated actually put Roger Goodell on its cover. Shad Khan is there too. For some reason, Colin Kaepernick is nowhere to be found. Weird, considering he’s the sole NFL player to actually be punished for protesting, given his de facto blackballing by the league.

In August, NFL players wrote a letter asking that the commissioner do more to support their activist efforts and causes, including putting some of a multibillion-dollar corporation’s financial assets to work. To date, there is no report that the league has responded at all. It seems like the players will have to settle for “unity.”

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