The NFL's Big Protest That Wasn't

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"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."  Remember that? That’s how this all started.  It started with a declining QB sitting on the bench for the national anthem during a preseason game to protest police brutality. Colin Kaepernick’s protest, and the protests to follow, were about acknowledging the systemic racism that occurs within our country.

Unfortunately, that acknowledgment didn’t take a leap forward two weekends ago.  Instead, it got completely lost amongst Donald Trump’s tirade. And Trump’s tweets.  And Trump’s general bravado.

Just a little more than a year after Kaepernick’s initial boycott of our national anthem, with kneeling protests gaining steam in the NFL, the president of the United States issued his own bewildering statements causing the biggest collective demonstration in NFL history. And yet, something felt uneasy about the demonstrations two weekends ago.  Something felt lackluster.  And maybe that’s the feeling one gets when you can legitimately question whether or not the biggest demonstration in NFL history was actually a protest at all.

The NFL stood together two Sundays ago, but they didn’t stand together in support of fighting systemic racism.  They didn’t stand together in support of fixing police brutality.  And they didn’t stand together in support of Colin Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job.   Instead, they stood together for the only thing they could possibly stand together for: themselves.  And it’s understandable.  The NFL got blasted by the president of the United States.  That’s a big deal. They should stand together. But protests are about recognizing a problem or an issue, and taking public stance in order to fix that problem. And that’s exactly what Kaepernick was trying to accomplish. Protests aren’t solely about unification.  They aren’t just about the right to free speech. They are about unifying a group of people in support of fixing a problem.  As I said before, the kneeling protests were about acknowledging the systemic racism that occurs within our country.  The collective demonstrations that occurred two weekends ago were not.  There is a huge difference.    

It would be unjust to let the NFL's family hug distract us from the real issue at hand. In order for these kneeling protests to be successful, they need to keep happening, they need to focus on the issue at hand, and they need to pressure the owners into change.  Comments like Dez Bryant’s after the Cowboys’ victory over the Cardinals two weekend ago are concerning. “I think sports show the perfect example of unity. It’s not just black NFL players, it’s different races. I feel like that was a clear shot at Trump, sitting on that knee like that because you just can’t do that,” said Bryant to the Dallas Morning News.” [What Trump said was] super disrespectful. We showed great unity tonight. That’s what that was for. I feel like that was needed. We’re not going to let a guy like that tear us apart. Not just us but this whole entire league. We’re a prime example of positive people. … He should have never said that. It was a clear punch in the face. I feel like we made up for that.” However, Trump applauded the Cowboys for kneeling before the anthem and not during the anthem.  So where exactly was the “punch in the face” that Bryant was talking about?   What’s more sickening about the Cowboys Monday night kneel down before the anthem is that it was co-opted by notorious owner, Jerry Jones, who doesn’t really respect his players right to kneel during the anthem.

The fact that Jones and many other owners participated in the demonstrations around the league is scary. But it’s even more concerning that the very people Bryant, and other players stood in solidarity with, are the very same people who have blackmailed Colin Kaepernick out of a job for his protest.  It happened again this week.  The NFL is an owners league.  If something is going to change, it’s going to be on them.  In the case of Colin Kaepernick’s ostracization, and in the cases of concussions, domestic violence policy, player safety, article 46, police brutality, or whatever the players want to fight for, they can’t stand with the owners in solidarity if they want anything to change. Players can’t follow the likes of Jerry Jones, and they can’t stand in solidarity with the likes of Dan Snyder. Instead, they need to put the pressure on the owners.  Some players were able to do that these past two weekends, but not enough did, and more need to. 

So yes, the NFL finally had a big collective demonstration.  And it was nice that the weekend got a lot of media attention because it should help the real protests that occur in the following weeks.  But we need to remember what these kneeling protest are really about. And to have a true collective protest the NFL needs to stand in solidarity with Kaepernick, not just freedom of speech.  In this sense, the NFL’s giant demonstration was entirely disappointing. It was disappointing that this weekend was focused around unity and not around police brutality, or Kaepernick’s blacklisting. It was disappointing that we’re still arguing whether or not kneeling for the flag is disrespectful because as much as Trump and many Americans would like to have you focus on it, it doesn’t matter.  If the issues at hand were resolved, we wouldn’t have players kneeling for the anthem, and that’s the whole point.

So don’t let the NFL's big weekend fool you. The NFL made a statement, but we need to ask ourselves what statement they really made. They responded to Trump in an effort to protect their own skin, a justifiable gesture, but a gesture that distracts us from the original causation of Trump’s disgust.  This issue started because of police brutality, and it shouldn’t end until that issue is addressed.  More players need to join the fight.  More players need to kneel when they’re asked not to.  And more players need to talk about the issue at hand.  Then and only then can we congratulate the NFL on having a true collective protest.