It is a virtual certainty that when players from the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots line up on opposite sides of the field ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, Minnesota, none of them will kneel, raise a fist or protest in any other fashion.
This is, in part, a product of circumstance: No Patriots player protested all season, and none of the teams that still had protesting players at the end of the NFL’s regular season managed to make the playoffs. It is, in another version of events, a sign of a victory won by the players on behalf of the issues of racial justice and oppression their protests had sought to highlight: The Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, who for much of the 2017 season raised his fist during the playing of the national anthem, agreed to halt his protests after striking a controversial deal with the NFL whereby the league will pour millions of dollars into various social and racial justice-oriented campaigns.
And yet, the protests that started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 will be notably missing from football’s main event, another entry in the history of black athletes’ protest and the freighted absences it creates.
This was, as HuffPost columnist Jamil Smith wrote this week, the “blackest year in NFL history” ― a season defined by Kaepernick’s lack of a contract and claims that he had been blackballed. A season defined by the continuation of the protests he began and by President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the “son of a bitch” players who spoke out against America’s racism and his own. A season defined by the NFL’s doddering responses that, at every turn, were geared more toward stopping the protests by any means necessary to appease the anxious white members of its audience than understanding the protests’ purpose or their significance.
This was the season the underlying dynamic of the sport, and of professional sports in general, was laid bare: Black men make up some three-quarters of the participants in a league that exploits their labor for the entertainment of largely white fans and the enrichment of mostly white owners. Which is why, when a black athlete removes himself from the normal proceedings of American sports, or when he is removed by force or by silent decree, a charged space forms. Kaepernick, Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Wyoming Black 14 — the story of black agitation in sports is the story of profound absences.
And so, at Super Bowl LII, notwithstanding Monday night’s Black Lives Matter protest in St. Paul, the NFL’s blackest year will end with the absence of agitation itself.
The last time Minneapolis hosted a Super Bowl, in 1992, a series of protests against the Washington Redskins, who won that game, touched off the modern version of the movement against the team’s racist name. A lawsuit against the team’s trademark protections followed later that year; only this past fall did a second version of that suit fall at the hands of the Supreme Court.
The NFL and Washington’s owner have remained intransigent in the face of continued opposition to that name. The league has argued for more than two decades now that “Redskins” is not a “dictionary-defined racial slur,” as Native American groups say, but a symbol of “honor” and “respect” — waving away any suggestion that the stereotyping of Native Americans might exacerbate the inequalities and disparities they face in a country that for centuries has tried to eradicate them.
Perhaps, as Jenkins argued after his splintered Players Coalition reached its deal with the NFL, the league will be more forthcoming and less cynical in its efforts to help its black players address the problems they and their communities still face.
But there are reasons to share in the skepticism felt by players like 49ers safety Eric Reid, one of the first to join Kaepernick’s protest. Reid split with Jenkins and the Players Coalition over what he saw as a deal meant only to put a stop to the protests.
The NFL’s brass has long seen its league as separate from America’s problems, a bastion of unity that stands above the political and social issues that divide and define us.
Last year, ahead of Super Bowl LI in Houston ― home to millions of Latino immigrants and more refugees than any other city in our country ― reporters peppered NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with questions about Trump’s attempts to ban refugees from certain majority-Muslim countries. They asked about his plans to build a wall along the Mexican border. Goodell demurred, pointing back to the ideals of unity, pretending that the NFL is an inherently apolitical institution.
This is a lie, of course. The NFL owes its existence as a multibillion-dollar corporation to politics and political activism, and it is plenty willing to engage in the sort of politics that boost its bottom line: It stymies concussion research; it zealously pursues taxpayer funding for stadium construction; it lobbies for beneficial tax and antitrust treatment in Congress. And it continuously wraps itself in Americana, patriotism and militarism to pander to the white folks it sees as its primary fan base.
But these are the politics of self-preservation and self-enrichment, and they work best when paired with a furious backlash against any effort to change the status quo. The messages of the protesting players are distorted as somehow offensive to the military, or as a form of “reverse racism.” Athletes and sports commentators are ordered to “stick to sports.” Trump has harnessed the white backlash to the protests. Now others are, too: This week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) issued a proclamation calling on the state’s residents to stand during the anthem before the Super Bowl.
NFL owners ― many of whom financially supported Trump ― were eager adopters of the argument that the protests from Kaepernick, Jenkins and dozens of other players had turned off white fans. And so under the guise of Goodell’s oft-stated mantra of protecting “the shield” — a metonym alluding to the league’s heraldic symbol — they sought to end the protests in an effort to keep the show going and the dollars flowing.
So even if the league is genuine in its efforts to partner with the Players Coalition, it is surely thrilled that the demonstrations won’t continue Sunday night, that nothing will distract fans, or sponsors, or media, or anyone else from the spectacle at hand.