Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: An open letter to the NFL’s owners
Dear NFL owners:
Whew! What a tumultuous year for your league. Slipping attendance and ratings. Continuing concussion controversy. Lawsuits from cheerleaders who refuse to shut up and smile. Domestic violence accusations against players. The Papa John’s founder mouthing off about something or other. Players taking a national anthem knee (NAK, for short). President Trump’s “problematic” rambling. Commissioner Roger Goodell under siege from, well, everybody. Bet it makes you fellas long for the good old days when all you had to worry about was Janet Jackson’s nip slip. Where’s faithful Hodor when you need someone to hold the door against relentless attackers?
Then you made it worse.
In May, you implemented a childish policy about how grown men must respond to the national anthem: a player can stay in the locker room during the anthem, but if he takes the field and then protests, the team and the player can be fined. Oh, Dear Owners. You stood at the precipice of history tasked with deciding whether to choose the principles of the US Constitution over profits of commerce, patriotism over pandering, morality over mob mentality, promoting social justice over pushing beers. Sadly, you blinked. Courage, it seems, is expected only of players.
Now, following the Miami Dolphins channeling of the abusive students in Stanford Prison Experiment by over-punishing protesting players, the May agreement is frozen and new negotiations have begun, this time including the NFL Players Association. A kneejerk reaction came on 26 July when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones announced he would require all players to stand during the anthem – or else. President Trump was not too busy with his tariff wars to claim a personal victory: “Way to go Jerry. This is what the league should do!” (Too busy to put in that comma after “go,” though.)
It’s been two years since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest systemic racial injustice, especially police brutality, against people of color. The worst thing about that isn’t that two years later we’re still debating whether players have the right to protest, it’s that not much has changed regarding what Kaepernick was protesting. A 2018 study by Harvard and Stanford economists from the Equality of Opportunity Project concluded that black boys raised by wealthy, two-parent families in upscale neighborhoods still do not have the same earning potential as low-income white boys. As for police brutality and shootings, where President Obama oversaw vast reform of local police departments, President Trump has advised police offers to rough up “thugs” and “Don’t be too nice”. Although racial minorities are only 37.4% of the population, they account for 62.7% of unarmed people killed by police. Just bad luck? Some studies show that in video game simulations police officers are quicker to shoot black suspects than white suspects, revealing subconscious racial biases. Even after a “bad cop” is fired, most simply are hired by other police departments. Given all that and much, much more, taking a knee during the national anthem is the epitome of restraint.
Why aren’t you NFL owners outraged by that? If it were white people suffering those same statistics, you wouldn’t even play the national anthem. Then again, you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become owners in the first place.
To be fair, not all you owners have cowered under the false flag of patriotism to hide their shame. New York Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson said the team would not discipline a player who protests and he would pay the league’s fine. Giants co-owner Steve Tisch has also said that his players will not be punished for protesting during the anthem. Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, released a statement vaguely supporting his players right to “influence positive change”, Jed York, the CEO of the 49ers and the sole abstainee from the May vote, has not elaborated on the club’s policy. I’m sure your players appreciate your loyalty to them. The rest of us respect your integrity in the face of political pressure. And there is the $90m the NFL has earmarked for social justice causes over the next seven years.
Ironically, the other owners remind me of the hipster who got a Japanese character tattooed on his neck thinking it said loyalty. but it actually said noodles. They think they’re showing strength, patriotism, and soothing ruffled fan feathers – but they’re actually saying noodles. To deny players the right to express their frustration in a peaceful manner is a disgrace to the Constitution, the opposite of patriotism. By compromising ethics to economy, you show moral weakness. And if you think you’re appealing to your fan base, you might be doing the opposite: a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 86% of Republicans said it was never OK to take a knee during the national anthem, but only 29% of Democrats agreed. About 69% of African-Americans said protests of the anthem were sometimes acceptable, but only 42% of whites agreed. So, unless you only want to appeal to white Republicans which, given the shifting diversity of the US population is a slow suicide, you are not really reaching the broader fan base.
We all are entitled to our opinions, but when those opinions translate into actions that affect the whole community at large, we have a responsibility to scrutinize those opinions, to hold them to a higher standard of reason. Denying your players their freedom to express their concerns sends a clear message that you don’t value your black players’ values. You’re telling them that they must abide by your white perception of social justice even though you have no experience with the kind of institutional injustice that robs their community of lives, hope and a future. You are owners in that you own the franchise, but you don’t own the players or their hearts and minds. I’m reminded of the song from protest singer Phil Ochs, “I’m Gonna Say It Now”:
“Ooh, you’d like to be my father you’d like to be my dad, and give me kisses when I’m good and spank me when I’m bad. But since I’ve left my parents I’ve forgotten how to bow, so when I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”
If not now, when?