The NFL season has come to an end. With the exception of the regular season game between the Steelers and the Patriots and bits and pieces of the Super Bowl, I did not watch the league this year. I did this for one reason and one reason only: the league clearly colluded to keep Colin Kaepernick, a player who silently protested the violence that African Americans experience at the hands of law enforcement, from being able to play the game that gave him his platform. For me, that was it. Protest is a vital part of a thriving democracy. That lesser players were allowed positions on teams while he, a player who very recently lead a team to the Super Bowl, was left to languish was a clear sign that the league was actively trying to silence the predominantly black voices speaking up for justice in their communities. This was unconscionable to me and still is.
Our bloviating commander-in-chief inserted himself into this conversation, which lead to league-wide protests and demonstrations. A “problem” that had been centered around one player became a movement, one that unwittingly caught up those who may not have had sympathy for Kaepernick’s cause, but weren’t willing to let the president dictate how they ran their business. Trump’s interference also shifted the attention of the protests away from its original purpose to the point where many players had to defend that they weren’t dishonoring the flag or the armed forces. It was a skillful misdirection by a man who thrives on division.
All the while, Colin Kapernick was being recognized for the awareness and money that he raised for numerous causes both domestically and internationally. He has been cast in the light of athletes such as Muhammad Ali who walked away from boxing at the prime of his career to protest the Vietnam War. Kaepernick’s quiet, dignified act of defiance turned into a movement. Whether because of the boycott initiated by Kaep or that instigated by Trump, the NFL’s viewership was down significantly this year. More importantly, players continued to kneel or protest in other ways throughout the season.
The NFL, to its credit, is beginning to take the issues that Kaep raised seriously. The league is dedicating funds to community-based programs in consultation with the players. They also opted against playing a Super Bowl commercial from the American Veterans Association that would have aired before the anthem imploring viewers to “Please stand”. Perhaps it took all season, but the league seems to be learning that silencing players on voices for justice is not a good move.
Personally, this was a difficult undertaking. I never really expected that Kaepernick would go all season without landing on a roster. Still, I think what my wife and I did this season was important, not because we personally changed anything, but because we sacrificed something we love for the sake of principles and values. So… what did I learn?
- I love Football. Specifically, I love NFL football. We watched some college, but we were never into it as much as get into NFL games. I can’t emphasize enough that at no point did this get easy. Every week felt like missing out. American Football is now and likely always will be my favorite sport.
- Boycotts can matter. As I mentioned when I started this project, I have been boycotting Wendy’s because of their treatment of their farmworkers. Oh, what’s that? You haven’t heard anything about that and Wendy’s doesn’t seem to be losing any sleep over my not getting a baconator a week? Yes, I noticed that too. Boycotts can work, but they have to have high profile and high impact. Kaepernick’s national profile and influence are what made this work. The importance is to protest from places of privilege and power. This is also why the MVP of this season is Jemele Hill.
- Our Country is Deeply Divided. Clearly I didn’t need the NFL to learn this, but our national divides were on full display during this ordeal. The sad thing is that are divisions are clearly rooted in people who have historically had power not being willing to reckon with their privilege. That the players have been singled out for causing division is willful ignorance of facts. If not being willing to tolerate injustice is divisive, then count me #TeamDivision
- I Don’t Care About Non-Football Fans’ opinions on football: The most obnoxious part of the boycott were the “well, I’ve been boycotting the league for 20 years because of its blah, blah blah and floopity joop joop”. Shut up! I don’t care. This is a byproduct of a smug culture that has to have a hot take on everything. I care about my friend Brooke who has been struggling through this season with me and, as a fellow lifelong NFL fan, has also had to do some soul searching this year. I care about my son who is just coming into his fandom. If the NFL is going to get better, and I want it to get better because I don’t think it’s going anywhere, it will be fans who push it to get better. Not a fan? Great! Stay in your lane. If you refer to it as “sportsball” just find something else to talk about with me. I have lots of interests.
- Whiteness gonna White: Look, a lot of what’s been wrong this season has been the national “revenge of whiteness” parade that’s been marching through the country. White people refuse to understand what is happening in black communities and therefore can’t understand why black people would be so upset. They also can’t seem to understand that inviting Justin Timberlake back to the Super Bowl without extending the same invitation to Janet Jackson was wildly disrespectful. Or that JT coming out on stage to the song that got Ms. Jackson banned was terribly inappropriate, or that JT using a Prince hologram was just stupid. Or… (breathe) that MLK’S “DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT” SPEECH SHOULD NOT BE USED TO SELL FUCKING TRUCKS!!!!! But hey… whiteness gonna white.
But I guess what I learned above all else is the power of one man shouldn’t be overstated. yes, Kaep’s name was on the protest, but it was a collective action that made what he did a national story. It was the other players who knelt with him. It was the journalists, many of them black, who took him seriously. It was the community that watched and said collectively “this is unacceptable”. We so easily get caught up in the greatness and courage of the individual and forget that it takes a community to make a movement. I am incredibly grateful for Colin Kaepernick. He has a lifelong fan in me. He was the catalyst. But we need to remember that no great thing was ever accomplished without community.