Over the past several years, the NFL achieved a seemingly impossible irony: It became the most controversial of all the major professional sports leagues, yet managed to distance its controversies from the game itself.
Players committed domestic violence, and medical scientists linked the game to irrevocable brain damage. But there was a dissonance between how the American people felt about NFL players beating their wives and destroying their brains, and their willingness to stop watching. A combined 99 million people watched the AFC and NFC Championship games last season, an 8 percent increase from the year before. And league profits hit more than $1 billion, a new record. Somehow, the league managed to convince fans that the on-the-field product was divorced from the social issues plaguing it. The NFL might have been problematic, but the games remained apolitical.
It was a convenient arrangement for fans — one that allowed them to watch a league dominated by African-American athletes without having to consider the larger social context in which those players had been born and raised.
But that haven no longer exists, thanks to the growing number of black players who are using the NFL as a platform to discuss racial inequality, and doing it in a manner the NFL can neither ignore nor conceal. NFL games, despite the league’s best efforts, are now as politicized as the league itself.
The bulk of the credit goes to San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the first player to disrupt the league’s social order. Kaepernick made national headlines several weeks ago after announcing he wouldn’t stand during the national anthem to protest the staggering number of unarmed black men killed by police officers in recent years, often to no consequence.
Kaepernick wove his protest into the game itself, during the national anthem, the most sacred of NFL rituals. The NFL has made a show of closely aligning itself with the American military under Commissioner Roger Goodell. Under his watch, every NFL game now begins with close-ups of soldiers, fighter jets flying overhead and flags that stretch the size of the field — a conscious effort to turn football into a celebration of American nationalism.
Kaepernick co-opted these televised moments and tried to turn them into conversations about race rather than a blind love of country. NFL fans could choose not to watch Ray Rice punch a woman in the face (or conveniently forget it by the time Sunday rolled around), but they couldn’t watch a 49ers game and not reckon with Kaepernick’s sitting and/or kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
He followed through on his promise, and the protest enraged fans, many of whom called him un-American (or worse). But the criticisms only seemed to embolden Kaepernick, who now finds himself the leader of a growing political movement in the league.
Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was the first to join Kaepernick’s cause when he knelt during the national anthem at last week’s Thursday night game. A few days later during the first Sunday of the 2016 NFL season, several Miami Dolphins players knelt during their anthem, and players on the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots raised their fists in the air, calling to mind John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “black power” gesture at the 1968 Olympics. In total, 11 players — none of them white — followed Kaepernick’s lead and engaged in some sort of protest during Week One. And if the trend holds, the number will only increase from there.
While Kaepernick’s jersey sales have skyrocketed in light of his protest — a remarkable feat for a second-string quarterback whose ability has steadily diminished over the past two seasons — some of the other players have learned that courting controversy is often an unprofitable decision, especially when it can be misperceived as disrespecting the military. Marshall, for instance, has lost endorsement deals from two brands who’d rather not associate themselves with him now that he’s a highly visible black rights activist. (Music mogul Russell Simmons has offered to soften the blow and sponsor Marshall himself.)
But that won’t slow the protests down — or alter what all of the protests thus far have meant. When fans tune into the games this Sunday, they’ll pay rapt attention to who stands, kneels or raises a defiant fist. Perhaps a white player will stand with his black teammates by kneeling. Or if no one kneels, that, too, will be a political statement. And fans will have to grapple with why their Sunday escape is no longer detached from reality.
The entire pregame ceremony will be imbued with political or social meaning — about race, police brutality, privilege, patriotism, freedom of speech. Regardless of what happens, it’ll be more than just a game.