White Nationalism in the NFL

[Note: This post is coauthored by Anthony Weems and Thaddeus Atzmon

In a recent press release via their web page, the National Football League (NFL) issued a policy statement that was clearly designed to stop future players from participating in on-field anti-Racist protests that draw attention to the systemic and foundational racism of the U.S. This embedded white racism is evident in The Star Spangled Banner–particularly at the end of the third verse, which celebrates slavery in the U.S. In creating this new policy, the NFL has, in effect, chosen to actively engage in the promotion and sanctification of white nationalist displays while simultaneously banning any form of protest against them.

What do we mean by this? We mean that not allowing players who are on the field to show their protest for the US anthem, which celebrates the enslavement of people of color by whites and was composed by a major white slaveholder, is a means of protecting an openly white nationalist display that takes place before every NFL game. This coerced censorship is accomplished through the rules laid out in sections one, four, five and six of the NFL policy statement which require “personnel” on the field to “show respect for the flag and the Anthem” and outline possible ways to discipline those who do not. Coerced censorship is also accomplished by hiding players who choose to protest the anthem off the field where they can not be seen during the televised white nationalist display of the anthem. This is accomplished through sections two and three of the new NFL policy, which remove a previous requirement for all players to be on the field and state that players who choose not to stand for the anthem in protest “may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed.” Herein, we delve into the way that coercive patriotism is used in the NFL, how the dominant white racial frame and white nationalism are reproduced through NFL games, and how past white nationalists have also used coercive patriotic displays of white nationalism in US sport activities. We end by noting the ways that athletes are pushing back against this form of coercive nationalism through discussions about denying their labor to the NFL.

Coercive Patriotism

Interestingly enough, NFL players even being on-field for the national anthem is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, sports analyst Stephen A. Smith has noted the following on how and why NFL players came to be on the field for the playing of the anthem:

Until 2009, no NFL player stood for the national anthem because players actually stayed in the locker room as the anthem played. The players were moved to the field during the national anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the athletes look more patriotic. The United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage onfield patriotic ceremonies as part of military-recruitment budget line items.

The NFL’s new policy that requires players to “stand and show respect” to the US flag and during the national anthem builds upon and goes well beyond this “marketing strategy” to a much more coercive form of patriotism. According to Tricia Jenkins (2013), coercive patriotism in the sport context is problematic for athletes and fans alike, as nationalist politics are packaged and sold “through the pageantry of sport, rather than through more thoughtful explorations of a conflict” (p. 247). In other words, coercive patriotism serves as a sort of nationalist sedative that further advances the politics of white nationalism through the emotion-laden arena of sport. Critical outcomes of this coercive form of patriotism by the NFL are both the reproduction and the dissemination of the white racial frame and its central role in mainstreaming white nationalism.

Reproducing the White Racial Frame

Sport provides a cultural skeleton for communicating the politics of nationalism to the American public. In the context of a globalized sport/media complex, protests led by predominantly African American players against policing and other racism have effectively challenged many Americans to take seriously the claims of liberty and justice for all. In reality, this challenging of espoused American ideals extends back well beyond Colin Kaepernick’s first protest in 2016. As the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois opined nearly a century ago, African Americans’ challenging of the legitimacy of (white) “American values” since the foundation of this country has significantly pushed the nation in a more just direction. Today, the taking serious of these values remains a central element in many counter-frames developed by various communities of color resisting systemic racism.

However, in the aftermath of the NFL’s new policy the spectacle of coercive patriotism and the production of resistance-less nationalism serves not only to silence anti-Racist player-activists but also to reproduce the dominant white racial frame and stimulate a nationalist base. Through coercive tactics and mediated agenda-setting therein, the NFL is able to frame what is and is not “patriotic” for millions of NFL viewers across the nation. What this has accomplished so far is it has emboldened white nationalist groups and “patriotic” Americans in general to support nationalistic practices and to act in accordance with the nationalist elements of the white racial frame. Indeed, when the President of the US frames protesting athletes as being disrespectful “sons of bitches” while legitimizing neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” and the NFL adopts a policy that seeks to hide and/or punish players for protesting, a reflection on the gravity of this new policy is warranted.

For example,while there are clear differences between the German Nazi system of oppression during the second world war and systemic white racism in the U.S. today, we also see disturbing parallels in the ways elite white men protect white nationalist displays and promote dominant white racial framing through coercive patriotism in public sporting events within these two contexts. Take this newspaper article dated January 7th 1934, which details the Nazi punishment of German soccer players for refusing to give the Nazi salute during a game. In this instance, the Nazi white nationalist salute is help up as sacred and those who dare not respect and honor it were subject to serious punishment. Today, the white nationalist display of the US anthem is held up as sacred and the anti-Racist athletes who choose to openly protest the history of white racism it represents are subject to punishment or forced off-field by the elite white men who own NFL teams and set the league’s policy in an attempt to silence them.

White Nationalism and Resistance

According to one important history of white nationalism,

African Americans in particular had changed American life at every one of its critical junctures since the advent of New World slavery. Ideological thinkers on the white-ist side of politics remain completely blind to this aspect of the twenty-first century. And from this failure, vanguardist and Aryan killers will continue to pop up, at odds with the direction of American life. (Zeskind, p. 542).

Recent information that has come to light as a result of Kaepernick’s collusion legal case against the NFL owners points to the central political role of President Donald Trump in the development of the NFL’s new nationalistic policy. As if the President’s publicly white-nationalist comments in response to protesting athletes weren’t enough, NFL team owner Jerry Jones’ sworn disposition claimed that Trump told him the following:

This is a very winning, strong issue for me… Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.

In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems. However, athletes and activists alike will not be quelled so easily, as many look to continue resisting systemic forms of oppression hidden behind the veil of white patriotism. Several NFL players have already discussed the possibility of sitting out this upcoming NFL season until both Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are signed to NFL rosters. In addition, several players have told journalist Shaun King that they intend to stop paying their NFL Players Association dues following the Association’s failure to adequately represent the players and their interests. If anything, it seems as though the new coercive NFL policy has provided more justification for athletes protesting or withholding their labor altogether. At this critical juncture in time it is imperative that we, as social science scholars and social justice activists, seek to contextualize and understand the NFL’s sanctifying of white nationalist politics, the active resistances to the NFL’s new policy from players, and how we might be able to work with and support social justice athlete-activists moving forward.

Ida B. Wells — Happy Birthday Today!

[Note: We are repeating this 2008 review of a biography of Ida B. Wells on her birthday today. And in honor of her central role in founding a very early Black Lives Matter movement.]

There is a new biography out about Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist and one of the founders of the NAACP. The biography, called IDA: A Sword Among Lions, is written by Paula Giddings (who also wrote When and Where I Enter), and promises to be the definitive biography of Wells. It’s just been released, so I haven’t read it yet, but it’s at the top of my reading list once my current book project is complete. Here’s the excellent review the Washington Post written by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a professor of history at Yale (rather than posting an excerpt, I’m including the entire review here because it’s so well done, book cover image from the same source):

Ida B. Wells was in England in 1894 when she heard that white Southerners had put a black woman in San Antonio, Tex., into a barrel with “nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she was dead.” The 31-year-old Wells, a black Southerner, was seasoned to the widespread phenomenon of mob torture and murder that went by the shorthand “lynching”; in fact, she was abroad on a speaking tour denouncing it. Nonetheless, she shed tears over the latest “outrage upon my people.”

Her call to speak out against lynching had come just two years earlier, when a Memphis mob murdered her close friend and neighbor Thomas Moss. The incident started as a dispute among white and black boys playing marbles, but it quickly evolved into an excuse to murder Moss, a successful businessman who was drawing patrons away from a nearby white grocer.


White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to: when black men threatened, assaulted and raped white women. Wells was determined to expose that lie. As the murders of the woman in the barrel and Thomas Moss attest, white Southerners also killed black women and economically threatening black men. And even when the mobs tore apart a black man who had been found with a white woman, it wasn’t always rape. Sometimes, Wells declared in print, the man was not “a despoiler of virtue,” but had succumbed “to the smiles of white women.” Her editorial in Free Speech, the black weekly she co-owned in Memphis, led white residents to destroy the newspaper’s office and threaten to kill her. But even after she was forced into exile from the South, she continued to proclaim — as a banner headline over one of her articles in a New York paper declared in 1892 — “The Truth About Lynching.”


For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a “negro adventuress” and “Notorious Courtesan.” A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should “muzzle” that “animal from Memphis,” and the New York Times dubbed her “a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”


Wells was an orphan and a poor, single woman who supported her younger brothers and sisters through teaching and journalism. She recognized that “my good name was all that I had in the world,” yet she would not be silenced. Wells used words to fight white Southern lynch mobs, an indifferent white Northern public and, sometimes, black critics who felt that her outspokenness undermined their agenda. Southern white supremacy was cruel and crazy, and she was the rare person who could see beyond the cultural insanity in which she was immersed. For that she paid dearly.


Paula J. Giddings tells several larger stories as she narrates Wells’s life. Foremost among these interventions is a history of lynching and opposition to it. She spares no details as she tracks the development of spectacle lynchings at the turn of the century, when lynching became a premeditated act, hundreds of people converged on the scene, and the mob sometimes tortured the victim all day before killing him or her in the evening.


In exploring Wells’s early life — she was born to enslaved parents in 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. — Giddings also paints a rich portrait of black life during Reconstruction. She movingly recounts dashed African American hopes in Tennessee in the 1880s and ’90s as white Southerners tightened segregation. Wells, for one, refused to accept it. When told to move to a blacks-only train car, she refused, bit the conductor as he threw her off the train, filed suit against the railroad and won $500 in damages.


Finally, Ida becomes a national history as Giddings skillfully recounts the great migration of Southern African Americans to Northern cities in the first decades of the 20th century. Wells moved from Memphis to New York to Chicago, where she married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett Jr. in 1895. There she confronted a new set of problems as a social worker and neighborhood organizer, but she also gained a modicum of power through local politics and women’s suffrage. Giddings describes the tensions within the black women’s club movement, which fought locally and nationally to ameliorate Jim Crow, and excels in portraying the sexism of black male civil rights activists and their white allies.


Despite a long and influential career in journalism, social work and politics, Wells has not received the recognition she deserves. She left an unfinished autobiography, and other authors have dealt with her activism in various contexts. Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly. Ida gradually brings us to see the world through Wells’s eyes; as she shops for a new seersucker suit that we know she can’t afford or feels betrayed when fellow activists try to leave her off the list of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we come to love this brave and wise woman.


Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time.

Can’t wait to read it. [edited to add the next paragraph…thanks to Joe for the suggestion.]



Wells, when she is recognized, is usually acknowledged as a journalist and an activist, but she was also an important early sociologist and social theorist. Kathy Henry, in a sociological analysis of her feminist and anti-racist ideas writes:

“In the latter part of nineteenth century, social theories from Ida B. Wells-Barnett were forceful blows against the mainstream White male ideologies of her time. . . . Wells-Barnett’s social theory is considered to be a radical non-Marxian conflict theory with a focus on a “pathological interaction between differences and power in U.S. society. A condition they variously label as repression, domination, suppression, despotism, subordination, subjugation, tyranny, and our American conflict.” (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.161). Her social theory was also considered “Black Feminism Sociology,” and according to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998), there was four presented themes within the theory: one, her object of social analysis and of a method appropriate to the project; two, her model of the social world; three, her theory of domination and four, her alternative to domination. Although those four themes were present in her theory, one could assume that the major theme above the four was the implication of a moral form of resistance against oppression, which is not farfetched seeing that oppression was the major theme in her life.”

Wells’ life and social thought are important examples of taking race and gender into account simultaneously.