It’s an awkward time for the NFL to have its Super Bowl in Atlanta. This is a league that, in reaction to criticism from the authoritarian president, attempted to suppress the speech of its black players. This is a city that was central to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, a reaction to systemic oppression of black citizens.
That contrast was the backdrop for “Athletes and Activism” town hall Friday at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The panelists properly framed the protests by Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players as an assertion of their humanity, and the backlash to those protests as fueled by a lack of respect for their humanity.
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL players’ union, invoked the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was co-pastor at Ebenezer when he was assassinated in 1968: “All labor has dignity.”
“Football is what they do; it is not who they are,” Smith said of NFL players. “If you are one of those fans who might be upset that kneeling and the expression of free speech somehow intruded on your entertainment, you are not going to hear an apology from me.”
Early in the 2016 season Kaepernick decided to kneel on the sideline during the pregame playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality, racial injustice and economic inequality. Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since that season and is suing the league for collusion.
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The NFL returned to the status quo with its anthem policy after last year abandoning a plan to fine teams if their players protested. A handful of players continued the protests through the end of the last regular season. President Trump eventually moved on from bashing black NFL players to demonizing brown people seeking refuge at the Southern border.
By seeking to silence the players who protested, the NFL reinforced a view of black athletes that denies their humanity.
“There is a long and ugly history of the black body as something that is to be locus of entertainment: ‘That’s why you are here,’” said Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer. “There is a language in sports that lends itself to that. I think it’s important for the owners to understand they own the team, they don’t own the people.
“And then when someone high-profile ... dares to stand up and speak, the reason why someone says ‘shut up and dribble’ is because ‘you are owned, you are property, you are there to entertain.’”
That view is rejected by Kaepernick and other NFL players who protest as well as athletes in other sports, such as LeBron James. By using their platform to speak out they are asserting that they are “human beings with opinions,” Smith said.
Another of Friday’s panelists, Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, said some fans believe that players shouldn’t express opinions unrelated to sports.
“As if we can’t read books, we can’t watch the news and know exactly what you know. Because we play sports, that’s not our lane,” Montgomery said.
The NFL gave in to that ugly attitude when it tried to crack down on player protests. To say that the league is a private business simply reacting to market conditions is to ignore that the leader of the executive branch of the federal government jammed his finger on the scale. NFL owners initially didn’t make much of a fuss about the player protests, but changed their tune because of fear of continued public criticism from the president of the United States.
It is, at minimum, a flagrant violation of democratic norms for a U.S. president to call on a private business to punish employees for their speech. It is anti-democratic to suggest that players who protest shouldn’t be in the country if they won’t stand for the national anthem.
The NFL could have stood up for its players, assert that it would not punish those who protest and denounce Trump’s demagoguery. Doing so no doubt would anger reactionaries until they moved on to the next outrage. But it would win the support of those who believe in the principles of liberal democracy and the humanity of black athletes.
Instead, the NFL capitulated. In effect, the league decided to try and placate those white NFL fans who are angry that black players protest in ways they don’t like.
In a poll commissioned recently by The Undefeated, 47 percent of white respondents strongly oppose the NFL player protests and 14 percent somewhat oppose them. By contrast, 59 percent of black respondents strongly support the protests and 23 percent somewhat support them.
Some NFL owners tried to smooth over the protest controversy by offering to engage players on issues of social justice. The league last year entered into an agreement with a group of about 100 players, known as the Players Coalition, to spend nearly $90 million on such causes.
Panthers safety Eric Reid, who had protested alongside Kaepernick when they were teammates, withdrew from Coalition and criticized its members for accepting the money from the league. Warnock said there’s room for both public dissent and cooperation with those in power.
“Kaepernick deserves a great deal of credit for taking the stand that he has,” Warnock said. “But there are a number of athletes who have taken other paths. That’s the thing about movements, too: People take different approaches to getting to the same goal.”
It’s no surprise that there was a backlash to the player protests. (In normal times, the surprise would be that the U.S. president led it.) Protest is “messy” and “meant to be disruptive,” Warnock said. The whole idea is to create discomfort for those who sustain and benefit from unjust power structures.
That’s why critics miss the point (or pretend to) when they say they are fine with player protests, but that players should find other ways to do it. That view springs from the myth that the white majority in America has ever approved of the time, place or manner that black people protested for their rights.
These critics sometimes cite King as the proper model for protesters. He is widely revered now but Rev. Warnock noted that King was deeply unpopular with the public by the time of his death. The more effective King became, the more he was hated.
Kaepernick is paying the price for speaking out against injustice. He joins a long line of athletes who did the same. Warnock marveled at the recent announcement that one of them, Muhammad Ali, will have the airport in his hometown of Louisville named after him.
“I think it is a contradiction to praise Muhammad Ali and condemn Colin Kaepernick,” Warnock said. “That contradiction recognizes the way in which people who take stands often are not praised or celebrated during their own lifetime.”
The NFL is on the wrong side of that history as its Super Bowl is played in Atlanta. The league can do right by respecting the humanity of its players and rejecting efforts to deny it.