Other than allegations, accusations, and even convictions for domestic violence involving players, there is only one controversy in the National Football League and one only: concussive and subconcussive hits in a widely watched game that was once about tackling and became, under the gaze of nearly everyone, about hitting the lights out of defenseless players, as if one were training for an assassination. Urban street assaults are more tame. While the league addressed this this summer with yet another deficient yet consequential adjustment by penalizing players for deliberate helmet-leading hits—like torpedoes launched from submarines—all while denying that the helmets themselves constitute much of the crisis, NFL culture was more absorbed with other “controversies”: What precisely constituted a catch vis-a-vis an incompletion? Would the New York Giants reward talented but reckless wideout Odell Beckham Jr. with a lucrative multiyear contract? Who would win the Buffalo Bills three-way quarterback competition, with most minds favoring the rookie? Above all, one loomed larger: a certain protest performed during the playing of the national anthem before games that would spill into another season, a protest that should be no more “controversial” than one sitting down to eat a slice of apple pie at a diner in Minnesota if one were to really think about it, although that too was once deprived of our African-American citizens in certain states, cities, and jurisdictions.
No matter how dignified, reaction to the silent protests have spoken volumes, reaching the decibel level of the chief executive’s Twitter account. Many see the players’ protests as more upsetting, but our nation is uniquely constituted to protect the right of individuals to protest in a legally protected manner, if not to deprive the president from mouthing off and worse on a forum of social media addicts, close to half of whom likely do not even vote every four years for the elected office. In addition to negative perception, NFL fans were upset and offended, attendance and viewership was down—the league’s very existence seemed to hang in the balance by the conscionable actions of a small minority of African–American player-citizens who’d decided the latter had to become more prominent—the very people who necessarily are protected from censure by our beloved Founding Fathers, many of whom nonetheless were slaveholders. League officials, called to attention, reacted in typical tuneless and graceless fashion in May by instituting a policy for this season requiring its players to stand during the playing of the anthem or remain hidden out of sight in the showers, an initiative with the unanimous backing of the league’s owners that was soundly challenged by the NFL Players Association in July and is, as has recently been reported, likely to be shelved for the entire season. The league, acting on a declaration by the Miami Dolphins that its players would be subject to up to a four-game suspension for an anthem protest, had reached out to the NFLPA and offered to trade $89 million in social justice program funding in return for the players’ anthem participation. It was a nice gesture, but came at a price, African Americans have seen and heard it all before, and the players’ reps decided their constituents wouldn’t pay up.
As that proposal dies an ignominious death, another byproduct is a gathering storm: the grievance against the NFL and its 32 teams by the protest’s initiator and principle reactionary target, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Playing in a Super Bowl? Priceless. Not towing the line as a professional African-American athlete in the United States of America? Mutiny bordering on treason. The mixed-race Milwaukee native is not the first to draw wrath for speaking out, or, in this case, taking a knee, or have his position and salary stripped away for doing so, but he is now the most prominent. African-American athletes, particularly those in the National Basketball Association, have been criticized for being silent in the wake of certain recent national crises, and this is one of the reasons why. Like their ancestors in slavery, experience instills it’s best to stay silent. Some finally did speak up—even if only on Twitter—or initiated actions or campaigns, or collectively rebranded their uniforms in support or in protest, last season. LeBron James, so well-known he’s practically representative of all African Americans, was condescendingly told by a Fox News hostess in February to “shut up and dribble” after making comments critical of the sitting president, something the notorious cable news channel did profusely every night Barack Obama was in office, at least once the honeymoon and respectful silence were over, and he became fair game. The hostess also chided James for leaving high school to become a professional athlete, quite telling for a “conservative” culture that puts self-made millionaires who did the same on a pedestal. Her comments said it all. James responded by posting an Instagram visual declaring, “I am more than an athlete,” an assertion that reminds one of striking 1960s Memphis African-American sanitation workers who held up white signs declaring “I am a Man” in bold black letters. Here, even sanitation workers are deserving of dignity, respect, and fair treatment, or so maintained Martin Luther King, Jr., whose nonviolent methods are completely lost here on nearly everyone perhaps but the protesting players, whose numbers are dwindling. Isn’t Kaepernick?
Reacting to the same infamous events, conditions, and perceived slights and injustices as the NBA athletes, although earlier, Kaepernick didn’t say anything, he just sat down. The University of Nevada graduate espoused his sentiments intelligently in interviews—yes, he did finish high school, with a 4.0 grade point average, no less—but the fundamental protest was on the field, with a mind toward full exposure. From the reaction, you’d think he’d marched out to midfield, unfurled an American flag, struck a match, and lit it afire. Perception was essentially the same. After two sensational seasons with the 49ers, including a 2013 Super Bowl appearance in just his first full season, the former second-round selection signed a 6-year contract with a total value of up to $126 million. The quarterback then lost his cape, following that with three mediocre seasons during which he’d, at times, lose his starting position and request to be traded. During the 2017 offseason, he declined a $16.9 million option from a contract he’d renegotiated down precisely in order to move on. If Kaepernick envisioned leading a team elsewhere, he likely overinflated his value, but he couldn’t have imagined going without an offer from anyone. His passing skills seemingly in regression, his bullet throws at times uncatchable, the former two-time Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year nonetheless still threw 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions in his final season, a superlative ratio in line with his career numbers that, combined with his skills on the ground, should have left an impression he could step in off the bench and contribute at any time. Nay said NFL owners, general managers, and head coaches, who otherwise aren’t shy about giving players with criminal and domestic violence charges on their resumes second and third chances, and who value ball control and experience in their quarterback backups. The 2018 recipient of the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award sits on the sidelines to this day. On August 30, an arbitrator ruled his collusion grievance could move forward to trial based on an abundance of documents and testimony from NFL and team officials. He may soon get the $16.9 million back, if not more, with damages in triplicate of the salary he’d have been expected to receive. Kaepernick also recently inked a high-profile multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Nike that also includes an apparel line and contributions to his youth empowerment Know Your Rights Camp.
Eric Reid, a first-round draft choice of the 49ers and five-year starter who went to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and is pictured above to the left of Kaepernick taking a knee, has also filed an arbitration grievance alleging owners colluded to suppress his services this offseason, with the emphasis being that it was the chief executive’s—President Donald Trump’s, not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s—private conversations and public Twitter admonishments that were the capital cause. Reid had a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he returned home empty-handed after reportedly being noncommittal toward old-fashioned owner Mike Brown’s anthem protest query. Brown reportedly desired to implement his own clampdown on the protests for his team, and the egregious question would appear to be in complete violation of seemingly every federal or state prejudicial or discriminatory prospective employment inquiry in existence, and, if not, it should be. The outcry and league and team pressure and suppression have had a chilling effect. In the case of Kaepernick, the NFL seems to believe that if you cut off the head of the snake, the body will follow. Eric Reid wouldn’t comply, and he’s unemployed at the age of 26.
Just as with so many events these days, the anthem protests are a teachable moment. Amid the adult hysteria, one wonders what the lesson is for our children. Other than those with likely no care nor sympathy for conditions in the African-American community, nor alarm at the flood of high-profile, exceedingly negligent and questionable law enforcement shootings of African Americans that gave rise to Kaepernick’s action, I know there are those who don’t mind the protests per se, but are upset they occur during the anthem. The nation has long been attempting to define African-American civil disobedience; from the Watts Uprising to The Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, when, where, and how it might be appropriate, to which there has never really been an answer. Anything and everything always seems to be out of bounds. It wasn’t so long ago, when, in certain places, taking a seat in a classroom, toward the front of a bus, or at a lunch counter, or marching peacefully and with dignity across a bridge and a state line were considered so provocative and threatening that riots and violence ensued. America, and Americans, have long ago lost the privilege of telling African Americans what to do, where to do it and when, and how to go about doing it. One can sympathize with why so many find it intolerably offensive to not stand and honor the playing of the national anthem and the display of the American flag; it’s ingrained in all of us, no matter how horribly our nation conducts itself, domestically or abroad. Yet how many African Americans have to be shot up and left to die by negligent law enforcement officers before one begins to take a step back and open up one’s heart and mind to other possibilities and views?
Blowback/The Flag of Chicago
One wonders if the reaction might be different were former Arizona Cardinals safety and Iraq War and War in Afghanistan veteran Pat Tillman to materialize and initiate a national anthem protest? The U.S. Army Ranger himself was shot up and silenced in a supposed friendly fire incident in Khost Province that was covered up by the nation’s top brass. Tillman had turned down NFL stardom and millions to enlist in a surge of patriotic duty, and, like so many others similarly motivated, soon realized in the middle of the hot. arid desert terrain that he was fighting for nothing, at best, and, at worse, a lie, The disparate commentary of two CBS NFL analysts at the time of Kaepernick’s initial protest in August 2016 detached along racial lines. Former Most Valuable Player and Walter Payton Man of the Year Boomer Esiason emphatically denounced Kaepernick’s action as “embarrassing” and “as disgraceful as any athlete has ever been.” He called Kaepernick “severely underinformed,” lectured the offender on the honorable, underappreciated, day-day-day heroism of the nation’s police forces, and recoiled at the idea that the halcyon playing fields of the NFL are a suitable venue for demonstrations of any kind, as if somehow immune from the likes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and racial injustice. Former Pro Bowl linebacker and East Side Detroit native Bart Scott supported Kaepernick’s gesture and his right to do it, likening it to a heighted social awareness among African-American athletes, declared it’s “always the right time to fight for justice and to fight for what you believe in,” and that it was “mission accomplished” for the quarterback’s aim of inspiring a discussion.
Is this the discussion we’re supposed to be having? Reaction to the anthem protest is not only sending the wrong message to American children, but it’s a wasted potential for a dialogue on the issues it raises, as well as the right to do it. After a discussion with an ex-NFL aspirant and veteran, Kaepernick himself honed his initial sit down to a more dignified kneel to more appropriately show he had no intention of dishonoring American troops, but people just can’t get past the notion that he is. One wonders if, for some, if not many, this insistence is just a convenient way to continue to deflect the injustices that inspired it, as well as the belief that one can protest the actions of law enforcement and U.S. military and not be denounced as ungracious and subversive. This disjointed exigency is dramatically illustrated in Haitian filmmakerRaoul Peck’s stunning, must-see 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on the writings of author, civil rights activist, and negro James Baldwin. In narrated excerpts and footage, Baldwin, whose singular voice is sorely missed and who would absolutely have a field day in these times if events didn’t lead him to nervous exhaustion and paralysis, emphatically asserts that the fabric of American democracy is forever riven by racial divide and discord, and that until white Americans come to terms with their deep-seated feelings toward African Americans, the nation itself is instigating its own demise. As if to confirm this, witness the powerful conclusion to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a disruptive real-life contemporary cinematic montage of demonstrating white supremacists and counterprotestors absorbed in an infernal ballet of incited violence and confrontation with no end in sight. Just as with the graphic imaginative reblending of the American flag and the Flag of Chicago for Lee’s dynamic 2015 film, Chi-Raq, that adopts Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to depict the damning failure to confront epidemic lethal shootings among African-American youth in Chicago, a crisis candidate Trump himself promised to arrest, the film concludes with the operatic, graphic image of a screen-size American flag displayed upside down that lingers just long enough into provoking its audience to move beyond the shuddering horror and contemplate.
“Embarrassing?” “Disgraceful?” That’s NFL fans exiting stadiums because of a handful of African-American players exercising their right to free expression, but who remain in their seats when a player is taken off the field semiconscious in a stretcher, or sidelined without awareness as to the precise nature of the consonants and vowels constituting his own name, after a particularly virulent, intentional hit by an opposing player. That’s Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, net worth into the billions, emphatically insisting his team’s nickname is not offensive in the least and absolutely refusing to change it, and the league and sports media continuing to promote the team and its official merchandise. That’s NFL teams and medical doctors routinely pushing prescription narcotics on injured players to keep them on the field in the short term, as if the sidelines and treatment rooms were a shooting gallery, exposing them to further injury and eclipsing their careers, health, and well-being in the long, covering it up and then denying it when they were sued over it. That’s the league dismissing medical research linking football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and then that it actually determines its debilitating premature conditions, much like the tobacco companies over lung cancer and emphysema, Toyota over sudden acceleration fatal car crashes, ExxonMobil over global warming, and those others unconvinced of the science of climate change even as their billowing smokestacks spew blackened smoke high into the atmosphere and the snows of Kilimanjaro begin to disappear before there very eyes. That’s not the Philadelphia Eagles blowing a 25-point lead to the New England Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, but the league allowing a capital city that still hoists a state flag based on the initial national flag of the Confederacy to host the next. That’s millions of people gathered together consuming hot wings, nachos, pretzel twists, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola in an annual national rite around flatscreens giving off the effect of a performance of poetry in motion from a safe distance while on the ground in real life players at six foot two, 250, with 4.5 speed go at each other until the tissues in their brains supposedly protected by their helmets grow progressively black with neuropathological disease in between getting their kicks viewing cheeky multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns from multinational corporations that play shell games with offshore deposits to avoid paying U.S. taxes, lay off workers, export jobs to the Subcontinent and the Far East, pass on costs to consumers, compensate executive officers tens of millions annually success or failure, while taking in excess profits into the hundreds of millions that are distributed to shareholders already extant in the one percent.
NFL national anthem protest controversy? Nah, just some guys exercising their right to free expression in the hopes the rest of us might pay attention. In drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the slaveholding Founding Fathers, whose bones shudder at the prolific, gruesome horror of negligent law enforcement shootings of African Americans that would make the Redcoats, who looked down on us for our slaveholding practices, wince, made sure no vocal majority could ever take that away.
© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours