Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9 FM. The views expressed here are solely hers.
by Roxanne Jones
The NFL excels at many things: marketing, entertainment, making money. Their business model is an American success story built on the backs of the men, most of them black, who have and still do play the game. Sound familiar?
And without exception, what the league does best is contain and control its overwhelmingly black players’ workforce (70%) and at nearly every turn erase the humanity, identity, culture and even the full citizenship of those men. The browner — and richer — the league has become, the more steadfast team owners have been to limit the power and influence of their workers on the field, and off.
This week, NFL owners walked into their annual meeting focused on quelling a player rebellion, ignited two years ago when one player, Colin Kaepernick, sat down during the National Anthem (he kneeled in later games) in silent protest of police brutality. Then, other players knelt, joined in the call for justice. They began sharing their own experiences with police brutality. And across the nation, the countless police killings of unarmed black and brown children, women and men continued.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick told NFL Media’s Steve Wyche in 2016, adding that even if he lost endorsements or lost his career as a player, “I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Kneeling will now be banned for any players on the field during the anthem. Even Jets owner Christopher Johnson, who has said he will pay the fines for any player sanctioned for protesting by kneeling, voted for the policy. Kaepernick has been blacklisted from the game. In the NFL, player rebellions will not be tolerated.
The ruling is the latest example of how fearful the league is of players having a voice or thought that resonates beyond the playbook. The league forces players use their bodies and their famous faces to market products and services that make money for the game, from footwear to food and a host of other items. The league even identifies and controls acceptable social causes for players to support, such as breast cancer prevention, and how they can show that support.
But under no circumstances will these black men, these famous faces, be permitted to show compassion for their fellow citizens, to speak out against inequality in America.
The message is clear: there is no room for unsponsored social justice causes in the NFL.
As a young NFL editor for ESPN, I attended a few owners meetings. They were then, as now, a powerful group of mostly extremely conservative white men. And though reporters are allowed to attend some parts of the meetings, I remember how my colleagues all tiptoed around and used whispered tones when those powerful men walked by.
They were no rule breakers when reporters were allowed to ask questions. When I got bored and decided to relax by the resort pool area, I was asked by my peers not to talk to any of the owners’ wives because I might get us all kicked out of the meeting. Everyone fell in line.
And not much has changed today. Among the 32 NFL teams, two have owners of color. None of the team owners are black.
During the mid-1800s, as the slave population outnumbered the white population in many states, slave rebellion was a constant fear for slaveowners, who worried that revolts would destroy the lucrative plantation economy.
Some owners mandated harsh rules and extreme cruelty to keep slaves living in fear, too afraid to protest their conditions. Others, treated their human captives with a little more leniency, even gave them a few privileges, believing the slaves would be loyal to them and not revolt.
Today, with billions of dollars on the line for team owners, it’s difficult not to see parallels between the fear of revolt in the 19th century and the racial dynamics in the NFL. The average NFL player makes over a million dollars, a far cry from enslavement of old, but that same fear of black men in revolt lurks in those who maligned and raged against Kaepernick’s silent protest — from NFL owners and fans to corporate sponsors and President Trump. It’s present in all those who somehow saw a few football players kneeling on the ground as a threat to our democracy.
The NFL uses tried-and-true tactics to control its workforce and maintain order: it limits who gets the most powerful positions. There are currently eight black head coaches in the NFL, thanks in part of a diversity mandate called the Rooney Rule
Still, a recent study of racial makeup of NFL teams shows how players are steered toward specific positions by race. Player positions on the field are segregated by race, generally with black players steered toward the most physically dangerous, athletically demanding positions on the field: running backs, cornerbacks, linebackers; while less physically dangerous positions such as quarterbacks, kickers, long snappers are overwhelmingly held by white players.
One study, funded jointly by the NFL and the players’ association, found that offensive and defensive linemen, who (with the exception of centers and guards) are also predominantly black, are at greatest risk for CTE.
And while we’ve seen more black quarterbacks in the game in the past 15 years, there is still resistance to putting a brown face in the most prized position on the field — as Louisville star Lamar Jackson found recently when one NFL general manager insisted he switch positions from quarterback to wide receiver if he wanted to be drafted, a tactic that has historically been used to keeps blacks out of the quarterback spot.
Through the years, I’ve also watched end zone celebrations as innocent as pulling out a Sharpie, or doing the latest dance move become politicized, criminalized and fined. There was a time while I was at ESPN that players’ hand movements and facial expressions were scrutinized in every broadcast, every photo — to make sure no gang signs were being flashed. I was often called on in these meetings to weigh in — just in case my debutante training as a young girl somehow made me a gang expert.
The NFL even hired “gang sign experts” to search the sidelines at games to check the black and brown players for covert gang signals and refer any suspected incidents to league security and executives to take further action. Ridiculous really, a room full of white men, who had never ventured too far outside of their upscale lives, checking for gang signs.
For his part, Kaepernick has been silent on the kneeling ban, only retweeting a quote on the day of the ruling: “Being inside of a system doesn’t necessarily change it, more often than not, you become absorbed in it until the system that you sought to reform, reforms you.”
Truth. Standing or kneeling, I’m hoping NFL players will not be threatened into silence in the fight for justice in this nation. I’m hoping players know that they have always been bigger than the game.