My hometown Washington D.C. football team won its NFL season opener this past Sunday. I grew up watching the NFL with my dad, and I’ve been a Washington Football Team fan since I was 7 years old. Growing up, my sports heros were John Riggins, Art Monk, Darrell Green and Doug “Touch of Class” Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Superbowl. But I didn’t watch Washington win on Sunday and I don’t plan to watch any NFL games this season. Here’s why.
I believe that NFL owners have colluded to prevent Colin Kaepernick from league employment. They are doing it in response to his decision to take a knee in 2016 during pre-game national anthems in protest over racism, police brutality and social injustice. I understand that the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech, not employment. But the NFL is supposed to represent a free market for talent. I believe that league owners have come to a tacit agreement to shut Kaepernick out of the NFL due to his protests. Kaepernick, 30 years old, should be in the prime of his career. He led the San Francisco 49ers to the Superbowl in 2012 and has compiled a solid passer rating over the course of his career. He should be on a team roster somewhere, but he’s not. Last year he filed a lawsuit accusing owners of collusion. This year, courts granted a full hearing on his dispute, which supports the credibility of his claims. We will wait and see whether the courts ultimately rule in his favor.
I don’t like how NFL owners have handled the issue of protest during the national anthem. They have not demonstrated a respect for their players and have been dismissive of the concerns they hold. Black players make up around 70% of the NFL. Police brutality and misconduct are real issues that disproportionately impact black men in America. Just this week we learned that a black man, Botham Shem Jean, was tragically shot and killed in his own apartment by off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyge. Police, more concerned with protecting one of their own than enforcing justice, are now smearing Jean by releasing the results of a search of his apartment.
In May, NFL owners announced a new policy requiring players to stand during the anthem, or face severe penalty. This move completely blindsided the NFL players union, which wasn’t even aware of the policy until after it was announced. The owners have since put the policy “on hold” so the season can commence and to give fans unsettled by the policy a way to watch and not feel conflicted, but the damage has already been done. How can the players negotiate in good faith moving forward when it’s clear that the owners never respected their position to begin with?
NFL owners have also been unwilling to offer players alternative avenues to voice their concerns. On Pardon The Interruption last week, Tony Dungy suggested the league allow teams to cede the final 15 minutes of pre or post-game press conferences to players who want to address causes and concerns important to them. I thought it was a great idea, and it’s one that’s easily implementable. So why hasn’t the league acted on this idea, or anything to give it’s players a voice?
The NBA has been much better with this. They hold a similar policy to the NFL with respect to standing for the anthem, yet they’ve offered players alternative outlets for expressing concerns. The most notable example of this is when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts before a Cleveland Cavaliers game in 2014 in remembrance of Eric Garner, a black man who had been choked to death by Long Island police officers over his alleged selling of loose cigarettes.
NFL owners are notoriously strict in maintaining player uniformity because the league is not about the individual, it’s about the team. But this issue is not about personal creative expression, it’s about respecting players enough to create the space for them to address the societal concerns most important to them.
The NFL has become too politicized. Spectator sport has always represented an opportunity for me to escape real world issues and politics, even if for a few hours. Well in the case of the NFL, not anymore. Early into his presidency, President Trump identified an opportunity to attack black NFL players who protest for his own political gain. At a 2017 rally Trump cursed Kaepernick and other black players who chose to protest during the anthem, calling them sons of bitches. His divisive and racially tinged attacks have continued, enabled by the NFL’s inept handling of the situation. Trump’s use of the NFL as a political wedge issue has damaged the brand with me.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in football players with a history of repetitive brain trauma. A recent study found CTE in 99% of studied brains from deceased NFL players. Make no mistake, I understand that playing football is a personal choice and that those who make it to the NFL are very well compensated. But I also find that I am no longer able to watch the NFL’s violent collisions with casual enjoyment. I’m simply too aware of the cost. One of my favorite podcasts is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. An episode this season titled, “ Burden of Proof” challenged me to consider how much evidence I needed to be convinced of the harmfulness of the NFL on the brains of it’s players. I’m starting to realize that I have the evidence I need.
The Washington Redskins. This is my hometown NFL team, the team I grew up watching, the team I’ve loved for many years. The team name is a racial slur to Native Americans and it should be changed. But the team owner, Daniel Snyder, is unwilling to even consider a name change. Ironically, Snyder need not look very far for a model of how an owner should handle a team name controversy. Abe Pollin owned the NBA’s Washington Bullets when I was growing up. He changed the team’s name to the Wizards because of his concern over DC gun violence and to honor the memory of his friend Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, who was shot to death in 1995.
Decisions Have Consequences
I love watching the game. My youngest son also loves the sport. We have been watching and attending NFL games together for many years. I’ve not forbid him from watching games. I’ve simply shared with him what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and I am allowing him to decide what he wants to do. So far he’s been watching. So I am missing out on father-son time and I’m not happy about that. I also really enjoy chatting back and forth with my dad and godfather on the phone and over Facebook during games. My best friends are also big NFL fans and so my decision not to watch games might put a damper on our ability to fellowship on Sunday afternoons. I also find that sports creates opportunities to connect with people through small talk, so I will be missing out on that.
What to Do Instead
It didn’t take me long for me to realize that there are many things I could be doing on Sunday afternoons instead of watching football. Here’s my top three. First, I will use this time to read more. I’ll put down my phone and pick up a good book or my beloved Sunday paper. I’ll also use the time to reach out to family and friends whom I haven’t connected with in a while. If you happen to be a friend who watches football, don’t worry, I won’t be hurt if you let my call go to voicemail. Finally, I’ll also use the time to help plan my 25th class reunion from Morehouse College.
Over the past year I have observed growing calls by many whom I respect greatly to boycott the NFL over its treatment of Kaepernick and its strong-arm policy to silence black players. Since the end of last season I have been reflecting on what I would do this season. Through this process of discernment I have engaged in thoughtful debate with many family and friends. I would share my plans to stop supporting the NFL and they would always ask me why. As a result of these discussions, I challenged myself to write this blog to clarify my own position. This is not a call to join the boycott. Having said this, if the points I make resonate with you, I will leave you with three final words.
Just do it.