A photo of people playing football, including Colin Kaepernick's team.

By Au Kirk [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Colin Kaepernick

By Au Kirk [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s How the NFL Could Make #TakeAKnee Mean Something

Players and coaches are kneeling to protest white supremacy and to exercise First Amendment rights. But is it enough?

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Nationwide, NFL players and their coaches are kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner” in solidarity with protest against racial injustice. Colin Kaepernick spurred the protest in 2016 when he refused to stand for the anthem and later told the press:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.”

It is important that we applaud Kaepernick and the NFL for addressing racial injustice. But NFL players taking a knee is only the beginning. Eventually, they must also fearlessly stand for something—and they should look to the leadership of today’s important and successful movements, like Black Lives Matter, to decide just what that something should be.

Public awareness of police brutality was the direct result of the hard work of three Black women who launched Black Lives Matter to highlight the issue of police violence against Black people after the murder of Trayvon Martin. BLM used the names of victims of police brutality as a rallying cry, like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland. In the past these stories and names would’ve been lost. BLM ensured their legacy would impact and endure. These women were able to build nationwide awareness through the use of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and the grassroots organization of demonstrations, despite the reality that they began with a very limited platform and strained resources. Their activism sparked a national outcry, debate, and even inspired important figures like Kaepernick, which created a domino effect that led to the NFL’s ongoing protests.

Now that the football league has joined the conversation, it is important that they continue because unlike the founders of BLM, the NFL and its players have huge platforms and a wealth of resources that can and should be used to take the conversations around racism to the next level. The NFL is one of the largest institutions in American sports with a fanbase in the millions. If three Black women could start a national dialogue about police brutality through the use of Twitter with only a few followers, the potential impact the NFL and its players could have is unimaginable.

The “what should we do next?” question is already answered for the NFL, as well. Since its launch in 2013, Black Lives Matter expanded to include various other initiatives targeted at addressing inequality in totality. Chief among those initiatives is the issue of economic justice. In a detailed proposal released by more than 50 civil rights groups including BLM, an ambitious plan was laid out to improve the financial lives of black Americans, which heavily emphasized the need for reparations, investing in black communities, and economic justice. Many agree that this is the most important next step.

“The issues dealing with race and racism and racial inequality in the United States are intimately connected to the issues of wealth inequality,” said Patrick Mason, an economist who contributed to the report and the chair of the board of directors at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

Former chief economist to vice-president Joe Biden, Jared Bernstein echoed the need for addressing economic inequality in his piece “What Racial Injustice Looks Like in America’s Economy,” writing: “Persistent economic disparities in jobs, incomes and wealth provide some aged bricks in the edifice of institutionalized, systemic racism in the United States.”

Indeed, institutionalized racism can never be eradicated while white families continue to have 12 times as much wealth as black families and black people remain locked out of economic opportunity. Undoubtedly, economics insidiously preserves racist structures in society and dismantling these structures is a high-level priority. Most economists who study and write about economic disparities across racial lines agree that some form of reparations and wealth redistribution is necessary in order to dismantle racism.

And yet Americans overwhelmingly oppose reparations and wealth redistribution, making the need to powerfully sway public opinion crucial.

Both white conservatives and liberals alike have espoused arguments against the need for reparations for African-Americans, despite arguments to the contrary from leading black intellectuals. While running for president as one of the most progressive and “radical socialist” candidates on the ballot, Bernie Sanders argued that reparations for black people would be “divisive” and unfeasible. Ta-nehisi Coates, who wrote a poignant and comprehensive case for reparations for The Atlantic, responded by arguing, “If this is the candidate of the radical left — then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children.”

This type of opposition can only be combated with large scale efforts to promote awareness of racism’s connection to economic inequality. The NFL and its players are among the very few who have the power and means to influence mass social opinion, and should put that power to use not in empty gestures but in educating the public about the impacts of economic inequality. While WNBA players have been taking a knee for well over a year, the reality is that their influence is minimal, represented by the fact that they get paid in the five figures. Sports activism has only gained traction when performed in the male arena of sports. For example when NBA stars started to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts after the death of Eric Garner, it was broadcasted all over national news, further pushing the BLM agenda to bring awareness to police brutality. High-profile athletes who have chosen to walk in the footsteps of BLM and bring awareness to the oppressive forces working against black people owe it to the movement to further its work and advocate for change through bringing awareness and pushing for policy and reform.

That reform could very well begin in the league itself, where black men who sacrifice their health and well-being to play the sport are still compensated unfairly compared to white players, team owners, and other high-ranking members of the league who are majority white. A common question in response to NFL player’s protest has been “how can these players be oppressed when they make millions of dollars?” when, in fact, wealth distribution in the NFL reveals the sick twisted reality about inequality in America: the wealth that is still generated off the backs of black Americans remains largely in the hands of white men.

Back in 2013, the NFL recruited its first $30-million man. Despite the fact that 70 percent of NFL players are black men, he wasn’t black. His name was Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, who raked in $34 million this year. In fact, of 2016’s top 10 highest paid players in the NFL (Derek Carr 25M, Andrew Luck 24M, Carson Palmer 24M, Drew Brees 24M, Kirk Cousins 23M, Joe Flacco 22M, Aaron Rodgers 22M, Russell Wilson 21M, Ben Roethlisberger 21M, Eli Manning 21M) only one—Wilson—is black. It would be hard to argue this is merit-based. In the same year, five black players were on the NFL’s Top 10 players list (Antonio Brown #4, Von Miller #5, Aaron Donald #8, Julio Jones #9 and Cam Newton #10).  Wealth redistribution to address this inequality could very well start in the NFL, as could a reparations plan to offer repayment to black players who lost out on financial gain due to this racial inequity in the league. And at the very least, one of the teams taking a stand could hire Kaepernick, who remains without a job thanks to his willingness to be the first to protest. These bold moves would have a major impact on the conversation nationwide.

Such advocacy is also in the best interest of the NFL, which has seen dwindling support from Millennials in the last few years. Compared to generations before, this cohort is less likely to watch the televised sport and some believe changing opinions and attitudes towards the sport may be a main reason why.  In a recent study, four out of five millennials stated that they were less trusting of the NFL than basketball, baseball, hockey or NASCAR. Out of those surveyed in the study, 61% identified the NFL as a “sleazy” organisation, while 54% saw it as being anti-gay. By and large, these opinions are likely the result of the negative press the league has received in response to everything from recent findings that its players suffer from brain damage (and the league tried to cover it up) as a result of participation in the sport to the NFL’s inability to adequately respond to cases of domestic violence, where players barely received a slap on the wrist in various very public DV cases. If activism and progressive politics are able to creep into the space, a renewed interest in football may be sparked among activist-minded Millennials.

The NFL has now reached a crucial moment in its history that will define the sport for generations to come. When NFL players and coaches protested during the national anthem, America became a witness to a kind of political engagement in sports that hasn’t been seen in decades, since the Civil Right’s era of Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King. That type of engagement drove national social awareness and brought about vast social change. However, this recent protest, which united team players and coaches alike, can be viewed as a meaningless act as race-based economic inequality continues to persist even amongst those locked in arms. Now it is time for the NFL to truly take a stand for equality. That can begin when the NFL takes steps to ensure economic fairness in its league and ultimately inspire America to strive to fight for economic equality for all.

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