The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more unarmed Black civilians have galvanized America — and the world — into a racial reckoning. The movement has played out most palpably in the world of sports. Now, the NFL is the latest professional sports league to address social justice, following the lead of organizations like the NBA and the WNBA. But is it genuine?
During a conference call on Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell revealed that the NFL will imprint social justice messages “End racism” and “It takes all of us” in the end zones at each stadium during the 2020 season. “The NFL stands with the Black community, the players, clubs, and fans confronting systemic racism,” Goodell said. “We will not relent in our work.”
Taking notes from the NBA, the NFL will also allow similar messages to be worn on players’ helmets and caps. Players can choose either the name of a victim or one of four pre-approved phrases from the league to display: “Stop hate,” “It takes all of us,” “End racism,” or “Black Lives Matter.”
The league is also putting its money where its mouth is. The NFL has set up a program called Inspire Change, which, according to the website, will be raising $44 million in donations to support "programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, with a focus on education and economic advancement, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform."
This is the latest effort by the league to revise their initial reaction to social injustice towards Black communities and follows a long-overdue apology earlier this summer, for not having listened to its players sooner. In fact, the NFL has a storied history of not only staying silent on issues of racism, but also punishing players who wouldn't. It's a story that can be summarized in two words: Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick’s peaceful kneeling protest in 2016, which was adopted by several other players across the league and beyond, ultimately led to him being forced out of the league and becoming a scapegoat as the NFL tried to stamp out the peaceful protests. For four years now, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback has not been allowed to play in the NFL.
The NFL's move to finally condemn racism comes after years of pressure from players, in the wake of Kaepernick being blackballed. And while the league's efforts are a relief, it's worth questioning just how opaque they are; unfortunately, the NFL's sudden Black Lives Matter-rhetoric conflicts with its owners’ political commitments.
According to a report by the Atlantic, several plutocrats behind the league who are financially backing these anti-racism measures have been pledging millions to racism as well. More than half a dozen NFL owners — either personally or through companies they control — have donated large sums to Trump’s campaign, his inaugural fund, pro-Trump PACs, or all of the above. The list includes Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.
The owners' millions have helped embolden a president who has demonstrated his racism time and time again, both personally and politically. With this knowledge, it's murky whether the NFL really cares about Black lives beyond just the Black players who help them fill stadiums and add zeros to their bank accounts.
As the gatekeeper of America's favorite pastime, the NFL's reach is so enormous that even mimicking social justice activism is sure to inspire some positive change in the fight against racism. However, we should not be satisfied with a multi-billion dollar league's willingness to throw money at a complex social-justice issue when it is years too late to the party.