Revisiting the NFL’s Racial Politics of Patriotism

This is jointly authored by Kristi Oshiro and Anthony Weems

Introduction

In a recent comment on Weems and Kusz’s Racism Review piece, From Bush to Trump: White Nationalism and the NFL, sociologist Earl Smith made a powerful statement reminding us of the real injustice that persists within the National Football League (NFL). Smith expressed,

The key non-figure for the coming Super Bowl that outlines the grave injustices of a white controlled NFL is the absence, the “black-balling,” the blocking of employment of Colin Kaepernick. Regardless of how many Super Bowl rings Brady has, or how many times he plays golf with Trump or how many beauty pageants Brady participates in, this does not erase the injustice.

In the thick of activist efforts that transpired in the 2016 NFL season and on the heels of “Choose-your-side Sunday” during the 2017 season, we published NFL Protests and Racial Politics of Patriotism. In this piece we sought to refocus the narrative; specifically, returning the attention to the message behind the symbolic displays of athlete activism (e.g., kneeling). In doing so, we shed light on the deeply embedded racial politics of patriotism at play as well as the role the mainstream media has played in shaping said discourse. As Smith’s timely comment suggests, the unrelenting efforts by NFL ownership groups to silence Kaepernick and other athletes peacefully protesting elicits a re-visitation of this piece in 2019. Moreover, further examination to understand how the racial politics of patriotism have changed over time and how athletes have been moving their activist efforts beyond the NFL since “Choose-your-side Sunday” is warranted.

#TakingAKnee

The movement, pioneered by Colin Kaepernick’s courageous efforts (e.g., kneeling during the national anthem to bring awareness to the systemic oppression and police brutality towards black people and other people of color) over the course of the 2016 NFL season ignited a resurgence of black athlete activism in the twenty first century distinct and different from any that had come before it – that is, what Harry Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. While the first three waves of athlete activism characterized by (1) a push for recognition and legitimacy during Jim Crow, (2) post-World War II desegregation and access, and (3) an uncompromising fight for social justice in the late-1960s and 1970s, the fourth wave of athlete activism outlined by Edwards is characterized by a struggle for power within a white-dominated society. Throughout this fourth wave of athlete activism, perhaps the most iconic gesture has been that of kneeling.

As the act of kneeling quickly took hold in the 2016 and 2017 seasons inspiring activist efforts across the sports world, so too did coverage by the mainstream media and academic communities as practitioners and scholars alike weighed in. While the “Kaepernick effect” has and continues to make a meaningful impact, the NFL quickly responded making it clear that this revived fourth wave of black athlete activism and players with activist intentions would not be welcomed, nor tolerated on the gridiron. Thus, we have gone from the league-wide display of athlete activism on “Choose-your-side Sunday” in 2017 to three individuals this past season. Yes, just three. At the conclusion of the 2018 season only Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, and Albert Wilson continue to kneel. Additionally, several noteworthy events have transpired since our last post including but not limited to the following:

NFL Players Coalition co-founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins (October 2017); Reid and others withdraw from Players Coalition (November 2017); Reid blackballed by the NFL (December 2017); NFL drafted a new Anthem Policy (May 2018); Reid files collusion grievance against the NFL (May 2018); Nike runs Kaepernick “Just Do It” ad (September 2018); Reid reinstated to the league signing one year contract with the Carolina Panthers (September 2018); Reid criticizes Players Coalition and outs specific owners intentions (October 2018); multiple musicians decline to be a part of SBLIII citing the NFL’s blackballing of Kaepernick as a reason (October 2018); Reid “randomly” drug tested for the seventh time in eleven weeks (December 2018); #Kaeplanta and #WakandaAli mural on Atlanta building demolished on Super Bowl weekend (February 2019).

And throughout all of this, Kaepernick remains blackballed from the NFL and the collusion case against NFL remains ongoing, with the hearing set for later this year. In the span of basically a single season the mostly white male elite and their acolytes who constitute NFL ownership and who have control of the league managed to effectively and efficiently “neutralize” the “threat” that this movement posed to the NFL brand. Thus, as another NFL season comes to a close, it is apparent that not only do the Patriots reign once more – but the racial politics of patriotism also continue to be perpetuated in and through the strategic operation of the NFL. To better understand this operation, a focus on the role of the owners is necessary.

NFL Owners and the Silencing of Protests

Fans might be paying to see the players, but the league is the owners. They make the decisions. They set the policies. They make the money with the extra zeros. Then there are the general managers and head coaches, as of this writing overwhelmingly white.(Bennett & Zirin, 2018, p. 47)

Despite the pageantry of expressing “solidarity” with players on Choose-your-side Sunday, owners and ownership groups have been overwhelmingly against the athletes engaging in protests since Kaepernick and Reid first knelt in 2016 – most discernibly through the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick from the NFL. Recently, Reid provided further insight into the views of owners on player protests throughout this process:

Y’all remember that players-owners meeting in New York City? So we were brought in under the premise that the NFL wanted to use their resources to help the black community. We established within the first five minutes of that meeting that we weren’t there to negotiate an end to the protest. After about an hour and a half of talking, Bob McNair says, “I think the elephant in the room is this protesting.” Terry Pegula follows up with “Yeah, I’ve already lost two sponsors for my hockey team. We need to put a Band-Aid on this, and we need a black figure-head to do it.”… [Jeffrey] Lurie says, “We can do more for the black community than you could ever imagine with our resources.” Bob McNair then says, “Yeah, just make sure you tell your comrades to stop that protesting business.”

As suggested by Reid’s comments about the obsession of several owners over bringing an end to the protests, the hypocritical performance of predominantly white male owners on “Choose-your-side Sunday” has only been matched by their disdain for substantively dealing with any of the critical issues brought forth by Kaepernick and others. This type of performance is indicative of what Picca and Feagin refer to as “Two-Faced Racism.” Two-Faced Racism discusses the nuanced nature of whites’ frontstage and backstage racism: “Much of the overt expression of blatantly racist thought, emotions, interpretations, and inclinations has gone backstage – that is, into private settings where whites find themselves among other whites” Thus, the frontstage/backstage framework is employed to “examine the significantly divergent racial performances by white Americans in public (multiracial) and private (all-white) arenas” (p. x).

Exposed by Eric Reid, the approach taken by McNair, Pegula, Lurie, and other NFL owners in the backstage had little to do with their frontstage act of supporting players in the fight against systemic oppression. Rather, the opposite is true. Owners fervently sought to develop new policy designed specifically to control and/or rout player protests.

According to Weems and Atzmon, “In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new [National Anthem] policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems.” Though the policy drew enough criticism to delay its’ implementation, the persistent efforts and subsequent effects of owners’ attempts at censoring athletes has been nothing short of profound. Not only did the development of new policies and programs aim to rein in athletes fighting for social justice, but the dependency of sport media outlets (e.g., ESPN, Fox, CBS) upon the NFL as a political economy further veiled the voices of athletes using these mediums to speak out against injustice. This strategic silencing of athlete protests had a collateral effect of shaping and constraining public discourse surrounding the fourth wave of athlete activism. Therefore, it certainly behooves us as scholars and activists to take serious the notion that NFL ownership groups (and the NFL as an organizing body) play central roles in transforming the racial politics of patriotism. More broadly, the behaviors and actions of NFL owners actively reflect, shape, and maintain the political economy of the NFL — a primary sociocultural institution in the United States.

Resistance and Persistence Moving Forward

According to cultural theorist and postcolonial scholar, Stuart Hall,

Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle.

Sport as a cultural site continues to be a central space in the struggle for and against the politics of oppression. However, as NFL owners have cracked down on black athlete protests in an effort to silence political voices that don’t fit the brand-nexus of white-framed patriotic capitalism, athletes have sought to innovate the ways in which they engage with issues of systemic oppression and inequality. For example, while Kaepernick has sought to continue his fight through the legal system via a collusion case against the NFL, others have turned to various social, cultural, and educational outlets – ranging from Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp to Martellus Bennett’s Imagination Agency — to continue to fight for justice and equity in the United States. Thus, while the impact of kneeling before games today has been relatively silenced by NFL owners, many athletes continue to adapt their approaches to fighting for a just world.

In 2016 when Kaepernick first knelt in protest of systemic oppression and police brutality, kneeling was necessary as a pragmatic act. In 2017, kneeling was just as necessary as protests continued to grow despite constant criticism from many fans, team owners, and the president. In 2019, however, the social and political effects of physically kneeling before the game have declined in relevance due to the acts of silencing taken by team owners and corroborating media outlets. In response, many athletes have sought to innovatively engage in activism through alternative outlets. In other words, what we are beginning to see from many athletes is the evolution of political activism beyond the stage of the NFL. And while this evolution beyond the gridiron may appear as if team owners are “winning” their battle against players, it brings with it more direct social, political, and economic change as athletes and other activists become more involved both individually and as a collective. Said differently, the persisting resistance of athletes and activists in the face of systemic racism brings hope moving forward. As Derrick Bell (1991) stated in his discussion of racial realism,

Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. The fight in itself has meaning and should give us hope for the future. (p. 378)

Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management doctoral student at Texas A&M University. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender.

Anthony J. Weems is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests revolve around the social structure of sport and sporting organizations and the roles sport plays in broader social and cultural contexts.

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