In 1933, the National Football League suddenly became monochromatic. The “gentleman’s agreement” to ban black players was reportedly set in motion, poetically enough, by the owner of the Washington franchise that still uses a racial slur as its team name. Baseball, then the national pastime, was conspicuously a white-only affair. Professional football was still a niche sport at the time, and thus could practice its discrimination more discreetly. Even the breaking of its color line in 1946 ― with two signings each by the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns ― seems all but forgotten in the context of Jackie Robinson’s debut the following year.
Things are different now, and they are not. The NFL’s 32 franchises are still owned almost universally by white people, but the percentage of black players hovers just above 70 percent. Those athletes play mostly for the pleasure of a majority-white fan base. Still, it was tough to describe the NFL before this season as unmistakably black, despite the epidermal clarity. The league’s own mechanisms for generating fan interest have aided in the distillation of the players’ humanity to injury reports and fantasy points. The race of its players only seemed to come up in maudlin pre-game feature segments about the rough neighborhoods from which their NFL fortunes delivered them. African American life, through the lens of pro sports, has largely been something to escape, and the playing field or the court is both the means of deliverance and the promised land.
As the 2017 NFL season ends with the Super Bowl on Sunday, it’s clear that something has changed. This season, NFL players have broadcast their blackness in a fashion that white people can no longer ignore.
This was the season when every single team failed to sign free agent Colin Kaepernick, despite a paucity of good quarterback play and an especially large number of injuries to starters throughout the league. Kaepernick, only 29, had one of the lower interception rates in the league in 2016, and led the San Francisco 49ers to the edge of victory in Super Bowl XLVII. He started the season wanting to play, but ended it as he began: unemployed.
However, thanks to his own activism off the field and the players he inspired to follow his lead ― men like Michael and Martellus Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins and Eric Reid ― Kaepernick became a man in full, and one of most influential people in America. The political fire Kaepernick stoked during the 2016 preseason by kneeling during the pregame national anthem, a protest designed to call attention to racial injustice in all its forms, became a conflagration in 2017.
The league has had moments like this before, when black players have made their race, and racial injustice, impossible to ignore. Hall of Famer Jim Brown was an activist during his playing days in Cleveland, working for black economic empowerment and bringing fellow NFL athletes and stars from other leagues together in 1967 to support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the military.
But shows of black political power within player ranks have also been more subtle. While the rate of white quarterbacks remains high, it used to be 100 percent. The mere excellence of men like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham, along with their steadfast refusal to be repositioned as wide receivers or running backs, opened doors for Kaepernick and countless others to excel at the position. And those men set a precedent for modern players to play the sport in a way does not cater to the white lens. Swagger in the smile of a Cam Newton or the stride of a Deion Sanders as they wreck your team? Even if white viewers didn’t grasp it at the time, those were and are inherently political. This season’s protests have taken that almost unspoken blackness, those underlying subtexts, and made them text once again.
The kneeling was patriotism in a pure and peaceful form, nonviolent pressure for America to get better and to deliver on its centuries-old assurances. The rising number of kneeling players called to mind what the Rev. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was murdered 50 years ago this April. I’m not talking about the part about him going to the mountaintop, but earlier, when King issued his reasonable demands of white American leadership. “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper,’” he said.
Kaepernick’s activism and the solidarity it inspired were the most visible signs of the NFL’s newly unavoidable blackness. Many white Americans, willfully misunderstanding the protests as assaults on the flag, military and national tradition, responded as they so often do to black assertions of presence and power ― with sound and fury.
President Donald Trump poured fuel on that stupid, starting with a September non sequitur during an Alabama campaign speech for failed Senate candidate Luther Strange. The president lashed out at “son of a bitch” players who kneel during the anthem, then continued his weird performance on Twitter throughout the season. He dispatched his vice president to a Colts game, on the taxpayer dime, to stage a huffy retreat when 49ers players kneeled en masse. He even took a barely veiled jab at protesting players in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, implying that those who don’t stand for the anthem lack patriotism.
All of this only helped the players make their case that structural racism is not only real, but will not die out on its own. It must be vanquished by action. In the course of exploiting their conspicuous blackness for the entertainment of his base, Trump actually gave them an assist. I doubt that we’d have seen as many players decide to participate, or the league offer to assist them in their fight for social justice, had he simply responded with a Coke and a smile.
But how does this conspicuous blackness, brought forth by players’ smart provocations, and unconsciously illuminated by the president’s opportunism, truly achieve? For one thing, it has shown, once again, that the “stick to sports” argument is for the birds. Refusing to simply shut up and play, courageous black players continue to put their humanity on full display, even when they aren’t kneeling, underscoring that their heritage is inseparable from their identity and their political priorities. Kaepernick has maximized this moment, shining the spotlight aimed at him onto the very people he sought to help in the first place. His pledge to donate $1 million to various causes, which he made almost immediately after he began his protest, has been completed. Other celebrities have matched the funds. And, after contentious debate, active players he left behind have joined with the NFL owners to begin a series of social justice initiatives, including outreach to community leaders and strategizing how to end systemic racism.
Still, as Howard Bryant reported recently, there is a decisive split among players regarding this strategy ― with Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate and the first player to join him in kneeling ― leading the faction dissatisfied with the compromise. Already suspicious of the league’s $89 million commitment to social justice causes, Reid believes the deal brokered by Eagles safety Jenkins and other players is designed to stop the protests more than anything else. I suspect that he’s right, because the NFL assuredly watered down the momentum of the protests more than anything Trump did. The league announced its new social justice initiative last week with all the grandeur of a deflated balloon. As of Tuesday, the new “Listen Together” website linked in its press release was still a 404-not found page.
Technology may not be the NFL’s friend right now, but it is continuing to reveal the reality of black lives in America ― even during those three hours of the American Sabbath when millions of us turn on an NFL game. The need for protest didn’t vanish with some largesse from the league.
If Jenkins or any other player on the Super Bowl sideline decides to take a knee or raise a fist this Sunday, I’ll applaud them. The act is not traitorous; rather, it is the players refusing to shield their blackness for the comfort of white folks. Nor will it allow them to escape the responsibility we all share for thinking critically about this country, so that we may make it the America of our hymns and myths. It is the latest note in a long refrain being sung by black people in this nation, including King, imploring the United States to do better by us. The perfect vessels for that message just might be the only black men who white people cheer for on a weekly basis.