Has the NFL Seen the Light?

The NFL has issued a statement saying it was wrong to censure players who protested police violence. “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

The NFL: “We were wrong.”

Well, better late than never, I suppose. And I suppose the protests are having at least some small part of their desired effect if they are causing individuals and organizations to re-think their actions, their words, and their beliefs. It wasn’t a spontaneous awakening. The NFL’s statement came as a response to a video made by NFL players about racial inequity and asking the NFL to publicly make the statement that they were wrong, and that Black lives matter. But racial inequity is deeply ingrained in our national zeitgeist and it isn’t going to disappear overnight. So any steps in the direction of awareness and growth, even small ones, should be welcomed for what they are. For now, I’m going to set aside the sarcasm and the skepticism and just say: “Good on you, NFL.” For now.

Several years ago, when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at the start of NFL games, he did so in protest against the mass incarceration of and the police brutality against African-Americans. Some other (mostly, but not exclusively, African-American) players began to kneel too. And America lost its collective mind. They called these peaceful protests “treason” and said that they “disrespected our flag and our troops.” Colin Kaepernick’s football career was over. Donald Trump called for protesters to be fired (for exercising their First Amendment rights). Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game when players knelt. Conservatives called for a boycott of the games. And the NFL threatened to fine players who knelt and said that they could only do so in the locker rooms, but not on the field.

I thought that was ridiculous. In 2016, I said that I couldn’t fathom the hostility that people were showing for Colin Kaepernick and his peaceful protest. I didn’t understand how anyone could equate such an act with treason. I thought that clear-thinking people should be able to see that they didn’t need to view the acts as anything other than the protests that they were.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that people’s affected anger was simply a way of cloaking their racism in false patriotism. It was never about the flag. It was never about the troops. If these last four ugly years have shown anything, it’s that these folks didn’t care about the flag, our troops, our national institutions, or our beloved Constitution. They care about holding onto what is left of their power ad their privilege, at all costs. That much has become clear in recent years. But at that time, I didn’t understand the degree to which ordinary Americans, egged on by the “leaders” of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, used false outrage, deflection, and gaslighting in their political discourse. I’ve had an education on that over the past four years. But more on that later.

Here’s what I said in 2016 about the subject. [You can view my original post here.] Here is the text:

Taking a Knee

I cannot understand the anger being directed at Colin Kaepernick and his decision not to stand during the national anthem at a football game. Why the anger? Why the vehemence? Why the assumption that it is an affront to the men and women of the armed services? I don’t get the logic that equates a personal protest at a football game with treason.

What do we honor when we stand for the flag? We honor the men and women and their families who sacrifice in the service of our country. Yes, of course. But is that really the only thing? Certainly not. Military might isn’t the only thing our country has going for it, and it isn’t the only thing our flag represents. It also represents our freedoms, and our liberty. Our rights. And our continuing fight for justice. And the brave men and women of our armed forces who have fought foreign oppression aren’t the only people who have fought and died for those things.

How about the hundreds of thousands who fought on American soil 150 years ago to end the scourge of slavery. Don’t we honor them? How about Ruby Bridges, a little girl who bravely went to school in New Orleans in spite of threats and hatred to begin the long slow process of desegregating our schools and our communities. Or a woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus. And the thousands of people who marched in the streets to bring civil rights to all Americans.

Our flag also represents other struggles and other victories. It represents people who marched at Skokie, and at Stonewall. It represents people who marched and fought and struggled in order to bring the vote to women, and about all the millions of people who fulfill their promise every election and cast their vote at the polls, sometimes waiting in long lines, sometimes against threats of violence.

And we stand to honor the flag because we are moved to stand. We aren’t forced to stand. We don’t live in a country where we are required to stand. We aren’t required to take an oath, or recite a pledge. We are free to do so. And sometimes our freedom moves us not to stand, because we feel that the time has come for certain injustices be addressed. And that is our right. Specifically because we have the freedom to honor our flag as we feel is appropriate.

Our flag stands for different things to different people, and different things at different times. And sometimes it stands for many things at the same time. And we can honor all of those things, and continue to fight for all of those things, and for the promise of all of it, for everyone. For the promise of liberty and justice for all.

These last few years have been an education for us all. And it remains to be seen whether the NFL (or any of the other companies who have jumped on the #BLM bandwagon in the last week) has really seen the light, and if they really are committed to allowing their players to express their beliefs and to working towards racial justice in this country. But even great movements begin with small actions.

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