Ever since former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick began “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest police brutality, the NFL’s supposed “protection” of patriotism has been center stage in discussions of the sport. League officials have blackballed Kaepernick from the NFL and frowned at other players who knelt in solidarity with him. Figures like President Trump have called for players to keep quiet, leave politics off the football field, and stop “disrespecting” our country.
So much controversy has surrounded the peaceful protest that, on May 23rd, NFL owners unanimously approved a ruling that requires all players and personnel to stand during the national anthem or remain in the locker room; teams can fine anyone who attempts to sit or kneel in protest (the policy is Trump-approved, FYI).
The NFL’s actions against a peaceful movement mostly penalize the Black players who make up 70% of the league, and the new policy is far more severe than the NFL’s rulings on players who have been accused of or charged with domestic violence and assault.
The new policy has received positive reactions from league officials, including Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer who said, “I think it’s important that we stand for the anthem. I think it’s important that we represent the country the right way…a lot of people have died for that flag.”
But that statement fails to account for the Brown and Black lives that have ended BECAUSE of that flag.
I should mention that one official, New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson stated, “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players.” It would appear that Johnson doesn’t think players should be penalized, but then he should have expressed this sentiment in a more impactful way — like by voting against the policy. Simply assuming responsibility for the fines is a passive action against a policy rooted in racial discrimination.
And we have to put the NFL’s focus on maintaining some rosy view of our country’s violent and racist history in context with its longstanding leniency towards domestic violence and assault against women.
Let’s look at some stats: in the 2017 NFL draft alone, three men who were tapped to join the league had been accused of violence against women — Gareon Conley (sexual assault), Joe Mixon (physical assault), and Caleb Brantley (physical assault). While, later, Conley was not charged and the case against Brantley was dismissed, the NFL still considered both players while the investigations were ongoing; Mixon was charged, and all three men currently play for the league. Colin Kaepernick does not.
Again, in 2017, a video surfaced of the Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott allegedly pulling down a woman’s top and exposing one of her breasts at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. The NFL didn’t immediately comment, even though this video came out after Elliott had already been accused of domestic abuse by an ex-girlfriend in the summer of 2016. These domestic violence allegations resulted in a six-game suspension ruling, which Elliott appealed. The suspension was placed on hold three times before he finally served it. Elliott still plays for the NFL.
In March of this year, the Seattle Seahawks cut Trevone Boykin from the team for allegedly breaking his girlfriend’s jaw. And during the same month, the Oakland Raiders released Aldon Smith after it was alleged that he bit his girlfriend’s wrist and threw her around a room.
While Boykin and Smith may have been penalized, these punishments feel like desperate attempts to rectify the minor slaps on the wrist that other players have received for previous alleged and confirmed violent incidents (for example, Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been accused of sexual assault twice yet his 14-year NFL career continues). When former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocked out his now-wife into unconsciousness in an elevator in 2014, Ray was suspended indefinitely — but not until TMZ released surveillance video footage of the horrific incident. When the domestic violence accusations against him first popped up, the NFL responded with just a two-game suspension — all resulting in a huge fallout. Since then, the NFL is still in need of some good PR, and I have to wonder if that influenced the league’s decision to suddenly take action against two players.
So players who commit violent crimes can rest assured that their bonuses are safe. But the greater threat is Black athletes and allies who kneel to protest the murders of unarmed Black and Brown people by police officers?