“We want to make sure we are understanding what the players are talking about, and that is complex.” – National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year began kneeling during the National Anthem at the start of games, he explained: “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.”
Only a handful of players had joined his protest by the start of the current season, until President Trump urged the team owners to fire the protesters. At the next game more than 200 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in protest. Owners, coaches and staff joined the players in a demonstration of solidarity.
As a lifelong football fan and mayor of a city that hosted two Super Bowls during my term, I worked closely with the NFL over the years and I am keenly aware of the untapped capacity of the League to address the systemic racism at the root of this current protest. More than 70 percent of NFL players are Black, yet the League has made no comprehensive effort to address the reality of the communities where many of their prime performers are raised and educated. There’s precious little examination of the process by which many these players are forced to overcome the racial and social challenges barriers that stood – and continue to stand – in their way.
The National Urban League has long urged the NFL and the team owners to make a serious effort to address the concerns of men and boys of color.
Following a meeting of NFL owners and players this week, Commissioner Roger Goodell said “We’re not afraid of the tough conversations. That is what we are having with our players … Out of those discussions, they understand that the owners and the NFL really do care about their issues and what we can do to make their communities better.”
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid called the discussion a great starting point, but he would continue to protest “until we get more concrete plans and to where I feel like I don’t need to protest anymore because the NFL is providing a better platform.”
Many of the players, for their part, are putting their commitment to social justice into action. Kaepernick has fulfilled almost all of a pledge to donate $1 million from jersey sales to organizations working in oppressed communities. Anquan Boldin, whose own cousin was shot and killed by police, and Malcom Jenkins, whose brother struggled to rebound from a juvenile marijuana conviction, have created a Players Coalition of about 40 players who work on criminal justice reform issues.
The League needs to support and encourage this work and expand its scope so that it can, as Reid said, “provide a better platform.” The work of individual players – and coalitions of players – is exemplary, but we need a concerted league-wide effort to address issues of racial justice.