By David Dancy
In 2016 Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49er’s, embarked on a sacrificial, career-risking, possibly ending, journey to bring attention to the plight of Black victims of police brutality. To casual observers, his was a small symbolic gesture to expose inequities in the criminal justice system. He took a knee during the national anthem.
What many find the most boring, and depending on who is singing, excruciating part of any sporting event, suddenly became the focal point of dinner conversations and talk radio for months reigniting at the drop of a hat. It was the same on social media.
His detractors were vocal, a homogenous group dominated by older White males, seemed to fit the mold of what evolved (some would say devolved) into ‘the Trump supporter’ during the football and election seasons.
There was no doubt to NFL officials that Kaepernick’s silent protest was impacting the ratings. After a record year (2015) in TV viewership, the NFL saw a 14% decline in the first nine games. This decline coincided with a tumultuous, abnormal Presidential election which polarized American society along racial and cultural lines.
Immediately after the November elections, the ratings jumped 10%, still 4% less than the year before, but it was obvious. JD Power did their own survey and discovered a 26% decline with 24% claiming the Kaepernick protests as a reason. It was clear, an angry group of NFL fans had abandoned the game in disgust.
What made them leave now? The NFL, up to this point, seemed to have a bulletproof reputation and could historically overcome any type of bad publicity.
Who could forget NFL player Rae Carruth? He murdered his pregnant girlfriend and no one abandoned the game.
Michael Vick did time in prison for his cruelty to animals.
The game’s immense popularity was put through another test. Certainly, a double murder accusation would hurt ratings. Ray Lewis, retired Linebacker for The Baltimore Ravens, out with friends, ends up charged with two counts of murder, but testified against his alleged accomplices and struck a deal. After a slap on the wrist, one-year probation and $250,000 fine from the NFL, he hit the field with a ferocity rarely seen and has been a hero ever since.
Ray Rice was captured on video knocking his wife unconscious-on an elevator. None of these acts resulted in a boycott of this magnitude. Maybe it’s because Black men on the wrong side of the law is nothing new. Perhaps that is why no one blinked an eye.
Maybe the low expectations levied on people of color have a direct correlation to the level of outrage. Maybe society is willing to overlook these things so they can enjoy the product on the field.
In other words, violence and aggression are hidden attributes for players in this dangerous game. So, the idea of being thoughtful or outspoken is a distraction from the convenient narrative. ‘Just play the damn game,’ is a common lament from the frustrated fan.
Not everyone agrees with the stereotypes associated with Black men. Black men would be the most likely to resist the common misconceptions about their day to day reality.
Black men would be the first to tell you, most don’t deal drugs and abandon their children. They would also yell to the Heavens above that mass incarceration is real and Black men are often mistakenly profiled for doing things everyone else takes for granted. Shopping in certain stores, crossing the street and simply walking in ‘the wrong neighborhood’ are all things for which they are regularly harassed.
Kaepernick rattled the fragile sensibility of suburban, White Americans by defying one of many symbols that elevates America into the fictional wonderland where everyone has a chance and prosperity is there for the hard worker.
But many Americans will tell you that’s not true. Not everyone can perform like a god with the game ball and rise above the fate of the common Black man. Some may be more suited as business professionals or computer programmers or tradesman. The training and educational opportunities required are rarely afforded, young Black people.
Like Kaepernick, at the beginning of every game, fans sit through a song written by an avowed racist that glorifies a-past which minimized and ravaged a people’s very existence.
Black people watch while their neighborhoods are occupied by military-style police and their young men and women get frisked against walls every day.
Americans witness a seemingly endless parade of videos showing Black men, women, and children killed by law enforcement, shopping at Wal-Mart, playing with a toy gun, while walking away, while running away, cuffed on the ground and choked to death remind us how little has changed since the non-violent Civil Rights Movement began.
Meanwhile, a portion of White America seethes. They become angry for being reminded and having to take the time to face the Black American’s uncertain, ugly reality. They look for any ‘reason’ to reject the issue. Talk show hosts spew biased information, minimizing the impact of police brutality and putting the burden on Black people to end it. “If they just weren’t so involved in criminal activity.”
This group of people belittled Kaepernik’s reasoning, ignored the facts regarding heavy handed police in Black communities all over America and in their minds reduced his protest into a meaningless act of disrespect toward those who serve in the military.
Their most common complaint was that with Kaepernick’s wealth and status as an NFL player, it makes him exempt from that type of treatment. So why should he care?
It’s really simple. Kaepernick cares about more than football. It is obvious he has experienced an awakening and decided that in order for him to sleep at night he had to make a stand. He has also put his money where his mouth is. He has donated to non-profits all over the country and has traveled to Africa (Ghana) to get closer to his roots.
The product of a bi-racial relationship, Kaepernick was raised by a White family. He realized in his teens the only people who would respect him for ‘who’ he is are those that know him best, like schoolmates and family. Everyone else would judge him by ‘what’ he is before peeling back the layers of his personality to accurately define him. He was, and is, by all appearances, a Black man and was treated as such everywhere he went. Scrutinized, questioned, charged. It happens to most, if not all Blacks, and that’s exactly where the disconnect begins.
It appears many white Americans can sympathize with the celebrated injustices but have a hard time relating to it. Like poverty and life in the ghetto, it’s out of sight and out of mind. The last place they want a reminder is during the weekly vacation called Football Sunday. It is a place where any American can escape to and watch their favorite gladiators, most of whom are Black, battle it out on the field.
In a league where celebrated players have been on trial for everything from murder to dog fighting and still held a job, one has to wonder what are the criteria to determine who gets to play?
So far this season Colin Kaepernick has not been signed while quarterbacks with inferior stats have. It is obvious to those who have been paying attention, he is being ‘punished’ for using his very visible platform to protest on behalf of other Black Americans.
For the many Black American fans of football, the executives in the league unwilling to sign Kap, who by the way delivered a 90.7 passer rating last year, are adding insult to injury.
The NFL will make very public stances on behalf of gay and animal rights but when it comes to Civil Rights, it’s just too much for them to bear. When it comes to a player exercising his right to protest the message is loud and clear. “Don’t bring your racial discrimination problems to work.”
A national Black boycott of the NFL has gained traction in the last few weeks. Some polls have over 100,000 signatures pledged to not buy jerseys, watch games, or mention their team on social media or play fantasy football.
If the NFL owners are willing to appease a vocal group of White fans while ignoring the wishes of the Black ones, it will be interesting to see how the demographic moral tug of war plays out.
Will the losses accrued by a National Black Boycott compare to the wrath of a few White vocal fans who claim to never watch the game again?
Will the obvious prejudices and personal-ideals of ownership continue to get in the way of putting the best players available on the field?
Most recently the Baltimore Ravens publicly announced their interest in Kaepernick. After a backlash from the ‘vocal group’, they scrapped their plans. They changed their minds even though a larger number of people from all backgrounds came out in support of Kaepernick.
Black people are tired of paying the heavy price for demanding justice. To watch someone at the prime of their career pushed out of the game for peacefully protesting is motivation to fight it. After watching so many policemen and women exonerated by juries for killing Black people in high profile cases in 2016’, it is incredibly insulting, even un-American to punish a Black man for bringing attention to it.
In his own defense, Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner speaking in front of a crowd of season ticket holders in Arizona on August 14th said, “It’s one of those things where I think we have to understand that there are people who have different viewpoints. The national anthem is a special moment to me. It’s a point of pride. But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we want to respect those.” (Quote from CBS news L.A.)
So the league commissioner respects the rights of individual players to protest but so far, is unwilling to protect those player’s rights to continue playing.
The people offended by Kaepernick’s protest are a small, vocal group. Ironically some of them are high profile Black athletes and announcers like Stephen A. Smith, Ray Lewis, and Michael Vick, the latter two guys have actually done way more damage to real lives than Kaepernick ever has.
Their advice? Drop it, play the game, respect the anthem and all will be forgiven. During an interview, Michael Vick inexplicably suggested Kaepernick cut his hair and “get rid of the cornrows.”
For Kaepernick, it’s water under the bridge. He has continued to reach out to the community and help out where he can. He bought suits for newly released felons in New York for job interviews. He has also donated over a million dollars to various causes. He has also had his shoes and jersey put on display in The Smithsonian.
If his goal was bringing attention to the issue one could say he succeeded. So far this year during the pre-season over fifteen players have performed similar protests continuing what looks like a legacy of activism.
Even White players are getting involved. Chris Long, defensive-end with the Philadelphia Eagles has publicly supported teammate Malcolm Jenkins’s decision to continue his protests. Cleveland Brown’s tight-end, Seth DeValve, joined eleven other teammates and took a knee during the preseason game on August 21.
This issue is not going away and the league can’t cut everyone. So what now? Will Colin Kaepernick get another chance to play or will he be blackballed forever as punishment for awakening the sleeping political awareness of a league fueled by Black bodies?