Minutes before kickoff for the first round of Sunday’s football games, the National Football League website carried two unusual features.
Below the usual fare of game-day predictions and fantasy matchups were slideshows of Baltimore players visiting schools with Baltimore police and of Miami Dolphins and the league commissioner doing the same with police in their city.
It was a jarring bit of social activism for a sports league site on game day. The slideshows are the NFL’s tentative steps to try to solve its “anthem problem.” Team owners want black players to stop kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, which has drawn the ire of the president, angered many fans, and threatens to turn off sponsors and advertisers. They’re also leery of alienating activist players, who have been protesting police treatment of African-Americans.
It’s a tough challenge, say both industry analysts and sports-and-society experts. Still, if the league and players can work together to find the right message, it would offer a unique moment when sports could help bridge America’s racial divide.
On Tuesday, NFL owners gathering in New York for their two-day annual meeting will consider what to do.
“There will be genuine, interesting, positive possibilities,” says Paul Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University. “If [the players] have that credibility and the league will work with them, then you greatly increase the chances that there is a way out of this.”
The potential to overcome rifts
There are times when sports have bridged racial divides. That’s what happened when America’s Joe Louis toppled German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938 and South Africa defeated New Zealand in the 1996 Rugby World Cup. Sometimes they bridge international divides, as the Olympic Games aim to do.
Whether the NFL – a $14-billion-per-year marketing machine as well as a sports league – can do the same is open to question.
“Unfortunately, this is not a unifying moment,” Glenn Bracey, a Villanova University sociologist who studies racism and social movements, writes in an email. “The NFL is prioritizing profit over black people’s lives and addressing racist policing.”
In many ways, the league is ill-positioned to address social justice. Millionaire players and multimillionaire owners don’t normally identify with the poor. And while the NFL (alongside pro basketball) is arguably the most racially integrated of industries, it remains very hierarchical: 70 percent of the players – and none of the team owners – are black. And many owners lean conservative. Seven of them donated at least $1 million each to then President-elect Donald Trump’s inaugural committee.
But in other ways, the NFL offers a unique platform for bridging divisions. The sport is followed by rich and poor, black and white. Many of its teams are based in cities with persistent allegations of racial injustice. Many NFL players grew up in neighborhoods that experience those challenges first-hand, and they continue to give back to them.
These factors may explain why, outside the limelight of the anthem protests, NFL players and owners have begun to explore how they might help each other address such concerns.
Last year, as San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained nationwide attention by not standing as the national anthem played, former teammate Anquan Boldin (then with the Detroit Lions) tried a less confrontational approach. A year after his cousin was killed by a policeman who now faces charges of manslaughter, he reached out to other players to form what would become the Players Coalition to address social injustices.
A letter to Goodell
In November they met with members of Congress to voice their concerns. In August, Mr. Boldin and three other players sent league commissioner Roger Goodell a 10-page letter with recommendations for what the league could do to support their efforts.
Although the NFL has ignored outside pleas to support criminal justice reform, Mr. Goodell has been more open to the players’ requests.
When one of the letter’s authors, Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, was handcuffed by Las Vegas police in August and claimed “abusive conduct” and racial profiling, the commissioner issued a statement Sept. 7 saying Mr. Bennett represented “the best of the NFL…. We will support Michael and all NFL players in promoting mutual respect between law enforcement and the communities they loyally serve and fair and equal treatment under the law.”
On Sept. 12, Goodell accepted the players’ invitation to a “listen and learn tour” with Philadelphia police, community groups, public defenders, and policy leaders. Boldin (who had retired so that he could devote his time to the cause), Philadelphia Eagles players Malcolm Jenkins and Torrey Smith, and owner Jeffrey Lurie also attended.
All this happened before President Trump waded into the issue last month with several tweets and crude language, calling on the owners to fire any player who didn’t stand for the anthem.
The Trump challenge
That’s when things began to get muddled – and tense. The NFL’s initial response was solidarity with the players. On the Sunday after the president’s initial tweets, the commissioner and owners locked arms with players or took a knee before the anthem at several games.
As many fans began to voice their support for the president’s position, league owners began to backtrack. Although Mr. Trump gains by choosing divisive issues to fire up his base, the team owners’ business strategy is to avoid such controversies and appeal to as many fans as possible, says Mr. Haagen at Duke.
“They walked into a trap,” says David Johnson, head of Strategic Vision PR Group, a national public relations and branding company in greater Atlanta. “They elevated [the anthem protests] far beyond what it should have been.”
Set to meet this week, the owners now face the challenge of how to move beyond the protests. Some owners reportedly want to force the players to stand at attention. But news reports suggest the league is more interested in working with the players to find a solution. In a letter to the teams, Goodell said owners would discuss a plan that “would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues.”
That echoes in part what Boldin and the Players Coalition are asking for.
“To counter the vast amount of press attention being referred to as the ‘national anthem protests,’ ” the players’ August letter called for “November to serve as a month of Unity for individual teams to engage and impact the community in their market.”
Mr. Johnson suggests the NFL choose a white and a black player to deliver the message that the league and players come up with.
Players with proposals
But the players in the coalition want more. Their letter asked for the NFL’s support in five areas of criminal justice reform: 1) police transparency/accountability when poor people are shot; 2) decriminalization of poverty so that people aren’t jailed for failing to pay minor traffic and other fines; 3) bail reform so that they don’t stay incarcerated for minor offenses; 4) a reduction of mass incarceration by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and juvenile life parole; and 5) passage of Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act, which would automate the sealing of criminal records of people with older, minor offenses (so they can get jobs).
Support could come in the form of funding for various community initiatives or advocacy by the owners for reforms at the local or national level, according to the letter.
The NFL has shown it can raise money and awareness for causes. Although many fans roll their eyes at the pink accoutrements players wear on the field for breast cancer awareness, the league has raised more than $18 million for the American Cancer Society since 2009. Its public service announcements about domestic violence have raised awareness of the issue.
But criminal justice reform may prove more difficult to rally around, pitting conservative law-and-order advocates against social- and racial-justice liberals. And many are skeptical the league can address such an explosive topic, especially given that no team has hired the talented Mr. Kaepernick since he became the catalyst for the protests. The free-agent quarterback has filed a grievance accusing the NFL of colluding against him – and if successful, the action would threaten the league’s all-important collective bargaining agreement.
“Sports reflect society; the divisions, inequalities, and injustice that permeate society as a whole can be seen within the sporting landscape,” David Leonard, who teaches cultural and race studies at Washington State University at Pullman, writes in an email. “Sports also has potential to transform and lead us and society as a whole to a better tomorrow.”
Which path the NFL takes will be revealed in the coming weeks.