NFL’s Kneeling Policy

On May 24, 2018, I was asked to partake in a TV discussion about the NFL’s new rule on kneeling. I received the call at about 11:00 am for a taping at 3:30 pm. Needless to say, I didn’t have much time for preparation. 

I ended up arriving at the studio about 15 minutes late. I missed calculated the rush hour traffic I would encounter along the way. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I did walk into the studio and realized that I knew two of the three other commentators for the segment and all of us are Black. I thought this should be interesting. 

I guess they wanted two conservatives vs two progressives. Charles Love and I were the conservatives and Rev Dr. Nicholas Pearce and Exavier Pope were the progressives. I assume this because I really didn’t know the political standing of Dr. Pearce whom I knew from the Apostolic Church of God or Mr. Pope whom I had just met. (see video here)

The conversation started out with very little disagreement noting that the NFL made a mistake by not talking to the players before making the new policy. In my opinion getting a feel for where the players stood about the potential policy and trying to get buy-in before it went public and/or making adjustments to the policy made sense.  Again, it would have fostered greater team and management cohesiveness and better public relations. But they didn’t do that.

The turning point in the discussion was when Dr. Pearce said that the issue was “not about patriotism at all.” He then quoted Dr. King, “the time his always right to do the right thing” challenging my assertion that Kaepernick chose the wrong venue or time to stage his protest. Dr. Pearce reiterated that “there is no such thing as a wrong place to do the right thing.” He also used hyperbole in comparing the NFL to slave owners because the majority of the NFL players are Black and the owners are White.

We really didn’t have an opportunity to unpack those statements on the program so I’d like to address them here.

The quote of Dr. King is actually, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” He said this in a speech at Oberlin college October 22, 1964, in a speech entitled the “Future of Integration.” He also used the phrase in other speeches as well (See video). However, when he used the phrase it was about a change in legislation, not affirming a protest. The “right thing” for King was getting rid of Jim Crow or the establishment of laws protecting the rights of Black people. In 1964 it was the passing of the civil rights act. In1965 it was the passing of the voting rights act. The civil rights movement was about changing Federal and state statutes so Blacks could have the same rights as Whites under the law guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution for all Americans.

To link Kaepernick’s protest to what King spoke of is to take out of context King’s idea of the “right thing.”  It also assumes that Kaepernick was doing something right. So let’s examine the protest. What was Kaepernick protesting? Many say the killing of unarmed Black men. Who were the unarmed black men? At that time the uproar was over Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Trayvon was killed by a wannabe cop. Unfortunately, that tragic event had no eyewitnesses. The only people who really know what happened are Trayvon and his assailant, George Zimmerman. The Michael Brown, hands up don’t shoot was a fabricated narrative to incite protest and unrest. It worked. People protested a false narrative and set the city ablaze. In their protest, they destroyed many Black-owned businesses which had nothing to do with the what happened to Michael Brown. They are the collateral damage of the protect just like the NFL is the collateral damage of Kaepernick’s protect.

 The difference between Kaepernick’s protest and King’s was that King protested the institutional establishments that propagated segregation. What did the NFL do to warrant such a protest? What was the strategy of kneeling during the national anthem? Did anyone ever think that to do such might confuse the message?

I was asked that if Kaepernick had not kneeled we wouldn’t be talking about this right now. But what were we talking about? We were talking about kneeling during the national anthem not about the killing of unarmed black men, which I believe was his issue. Thus the venue was wrong because the NFL has nothing to do with the issue. Kneeling during the anthem confused it even more because the anthem looks to the ideals of our nation and many, especially the armed forces view the anthem as sacrosanct. It confused the actual concern with the flag and national pride. So instead of addressing a legitimate issue, it got lost in the charge of being unpatriotic.

Kaepernick and other concerned NFL players already had a platform and money with which they could have organized and made a statement then even set up a fund. They could have asked the owners to match their contributions for their cause. But again someone tell me, who is the villain here? Is it systemic racism? How is it systemic? What is the evidence? Then how do you identify it and fight it? Copying protest from the 1950s for a problem in the 2000s is not a strategy.  Are there any other factors that contribute to the negative and sometimes deadly encounters with the police? 

Lastly, to use hyperbole to describe the relationship between White owners and Black athletes to slavery demeans and devalues the hardship that our ancestors actually lived through. It does the same to the civil right struggle. No one is forced to play football. Players are well compensated. A friend of mine once referred to the NFL as the millionaires club that meets every Sunday. The NFL has helped create more economic equity for Black men than any other sport except maybe the NBA.  Add to that all the tangential avenues for making a living through the league from selling jerseys and food to other items. Outside the league there are sportscasters, writers, coaches at lower levels and the list goes on. The multibillion-dollar business touches more people than we can ever count. 

However, I wonder how others would characterize the NFL before Kenny Washington integrated the League? Were they White slaves? The politics of Racial grievance doesn’t work in this scenario. It’s amazing how the very things our ancestors fought for, the very things we wanted to have access to have somehow drawn the scorn of many of the modern civil rights leaders.  Although Booker T. Washington did warn us:    

“There is (a) class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs. … ” 

“There is a certain class of race problem-solvers who don’t want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public.”— Booker T. Washington

The Civil Rights movement today, Black Lives Matter, and some well-meaning pastors are not really interested in racial reconciliation. They, like the people in Washington’s quote, want to keep  Black people emotionally upset so they can manipulate them to do what they want them to do. I can’t say that I know this to be true of my debate colleagues. But I do know that throwing gasoline on a fire like the rhetoric exposed by them does not address the real issues facing us. It cloaks them in a racial dialogue that has no real end in sight. In this scenario, we never get to the real problem. We’re always treating the systems.

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