Why the NFL is on the brink of civil war

Players refusing to stand during the national anthem has sparked controversy and protests amongst fans, players, and coaches

“It seems as if the whole of America comes to a halt to watch the game.”

Weekends in the US are dedicated to American football. Friday nights see high school teams take to their local stadiums, holding the capacity to fit thousands of raucous fans. Saturdays see college teams play in front of crowds that rival European soccer matches in terms of attendance. Finally, Sundays see the National Football League (NFL) broadcast matches from lunchtime to the early evening. The final match of the day is nationally televised and draws in millions of viewers. It seems as if the whole of America comes to a halt to watch the game.

At the centre of the game are the African-American players, who have made huge contributions to the sport, both at a collegiate level and the NFL. Jim Brown, arguably the greatest player in league history, was African-American – even casual followers of the league recognise the name of the man who revolutionised the way players ran with the ball. What many seem to forget about Jim Brown was that he was an active member of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Having experienced first-hand discrimination faced by African-Americans in all walks of life – Syracuse University initially refused to offer Brown a scholarship on account of his skin colour – he knew that remaining silent would achieve nothing. It was his acquaintance with Ken Molloy, a future State Supreme Court Judge for New York, that convinced Syracuse to offer him a place. Brown would use his fame and media spotlight to fund programmes such as the Black Economic Forum, which was aimed at black professional athletes to help black-owned businesses thrive in urban communities.

Brown is often regarded as one of the first prolific athletes involved in philanthropy, and his legacy still stands today. Many of the league’s current players are involved in charity and philanthropy, which the NFL recognises with its annual Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The accolade itself is named after another African-American who left a lasting mark on the sport, in both his on-field prowess and his humanitarian work.

“Movements such as Black Lives Matter should be the minimum of what we expect from people who simply say ‘no more’.”

For all that, African-Americans have accomplished the playing, coaching, and the managerial levels of the game. However, they participate in a national sport where they are still marginalised five and a half decades after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Names like Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray, are only a handful who have been killed by law enforcement officials. Movements such as Black Lives Matter should be the minimum of what we expect from people who simply say “no more”.

In the NFL’s context, the present turmoil began in the pre-season of the 2016 NFL season: a time where the US Presidential race was in high gear. The San Francisco 49ers were in turmoil – their appearance in the 2013 Super Bowl seemed a distant memory – and their roster had been decimated with retirements, injuries, and trades. Colin Kaepernick, the recently benched quarterback, who is of a mixed race heritage, was caught on camera remaining seated during the rendition of the pre-game playing of America’s national anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner has attracted controversy in the past due to its lyrical content. One such verse contains a passage chastising slaves for siding with the British against America during the War of 1812.

Social media erupted. Charges of disrespect towards both the American flag and US army veterans were levelled at Kaepernick. In the following game, Kaepernick was joined by teammate Eric Reid in his peaceful protest, as both players took a knee while the anthem was played. Several players followed suit in various forms of peaceful protest over the following weeks. Marcus Peters, of the Kansas City Chiefs, chose to stand, but raised his hand in a Black Power salute during the opening day of the 2016 season.

Throughout the 2016 season, the debate over protesting during the national anthem dominated discussion among pundits and politicians alike. In a country that takes honouring its servicemen and servicewomen seriously, protesting during the anthem sharply divided America. Many argue that the anthem is not an ideal time to protest and that an organised press conference would be a better way of raising awareness for the socially and politically charged issue of police shootings. At this point, every coach, player, former player, and pundit has had their say. Veterans and their family members have both supported and disavowed the protests.

Kaepernick officially opted out of his 49ers contract at the conclusion of the 2016 season. His subsequent failure to make an NFL roster led to accusations of league-wide collusion, with some suggesting that he was officially blacklisted by the league. The evidence does not paint a pretty picture. One anonymous NFL executive has labelled Kaepernick a “traitor”, while coaches have given very political answers when queried about one of the league’s most polarising figures.

After his endorsement by Nike, as part of their 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign, the debate has been reignited. The depiction of a black and white image of Kaepernick with the tagline, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” has led to even further debate. Many pundits have considered how much Kaepernick has sacrificed for a potentially multi-million dollar contract.

“Do critics of the protest honestly believe that even a fraction of those numbers will tune in to watch an organised press conference?”

The actions of the then presidential candidate, and now President, Donald Trump has not made things any easier, even going so far as to suggest that players should be fired for the mere act of peaceful protest. Trump suffered personal embarrassment when he was forced to cancel the annual visit of the winners of the Super Bowl to the White House when several prominent players of the Philadelphia Eagles openly said they would decline an invitation due to his comments on the anthem protests.

An open discussion on race is not happening, and that is why the anthem protests will continue to happen until America does face up to the issue. The platform that is afforded to these athletes during game day is incomparable; everyone tunes in to watch the NFL in America, not to mention a massive worldwide audience. Do critics of the protest honestly believe that even a fraction of those numbers will tune in to watch an organised press conference as they have suggested?

There may yet be better ways for players to voice their concern over the mistreatment of African-Americans, but until top officials in the league acknowledge that the players are taking a principled stand, and do everything in their power to support them, a players’ revolt may be a very realistic possibility, akin to the infamous 1982 Players Strike, when only nine games per team were played. Only this time, a popular political cause will be behind the players, and empty seats will not be greeted warmly by corporate sponsors.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a staff writer at Trinity News.