The New NFL Anthem Protest Policy, Sterling Brown vs. Milwaukee Police, and Racial Inequality

As if we needed any further examples, a series of disjoint but related events this week reminded us of the rot of the NFL and the perils of being black.

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(Image via: NBC Sports)

I am a lifelong NBA fan. And because the NBA is generally ahead of the curve when it comes to social issues, it’s astounding for me to see the NFL continuously mishandle situations related to social issues and shoot itself in the foot.

Ever since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, the NFL has responded to the protest and it’s evolution(s) several times, and each time, they have provided nothing but empty words and transparent actions. First it was NFL owners subtly-but-not-really-that-subtly exiling Kaepernick, then there was the empty show of “unity”, and now a new policy that subtly-but-not-really-that-subtly silences players. The new policy:

There are a few problems to note right off the bat. The first: this might not actually even be legal, based on the grey area between American First Amendment rights, workplace law, and public policy, particularly because the NFL Player’s Association, the union that represents the players, was never consulted.

Second: less than a day after it was announced, we learned that not only did some of the 32 owners not agree to this policy change, this policy change resulted not from a formal vote, but a casual, informal poll. Jed York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, the team Kaepernick last played for, abstained from the process all together. Christopher Johnson, owner of the New York Jets, has already said that he would personally pay for any fines his players accrues.

And last but certainly not least, many of the owners who “agreed” with this new policy have since admitted that a big factor that played a role in this new policy is a fear of President Trump and his continuous comments about the NFL as it relates to its handling of the protests. “Our league is f — king terrified of Trump. We’re scared of him”, said one anonymous team official.

This is all even before we get to the policy itself. As The Atlantic notes, by putting players in a position where they have to decide between peacefully protesting and getting hit with a fine, and not standing up for what they believe is right, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, on behalf of the league, is attempting to silence players and sweep the real-world tribulations they face under the rug:

“In the NFL’s managing of its own story, the locker room, in its literal and metaphorical forms, serves a different function: to maintain the spectacle by hiding the humans — their physical pains and worldly concerns — who make it.”

This comes in the same week where we learned that an NBA player by the name of Sterling Brown, a first-year player who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, found himself in the exact type of situation that sparked the protest Colin Kaepernick started.

Back in January, at about 2 a.m. after his team played the Brooklyn Nets, police arrived at a local Walgreens after Sterling Brown parked his car across several handicap parking spots. Instead of getting a ticket, Sterling Brown got harassed by at least six officers, some of whom were called in by the first officer on the scene, and tazed. For a parking violation. Was it a dumb move on the part of Sterling Brown? Sure, but neither that, nor his behavior during the encounter, warranted the use of a taser.

You know there’s something wrong with the world when you watch a video of a black male’s encounter with police officers and feel relieved when the video ends and the man hasn’t been shot. The list of examples of black individuals being unjustly treated for doing things that don’t even require police presence is far too long. Some examples, as noted by the Washington Post and New Republic:

Couponing while black, graduating too boisterously while black, waiting for a school bus while black, throwing a kindergarten temper tantrum while black, drinking iced tea while black, waiting at Starbucks while black, AirBnB’ing while black, shopping for underwear while black, having a loud conversation while black, golfing too slowly while black, buying clothes at Barney’s while black, or Macy’s, or Nordstrom Rack, getting locked out of your own home while black, going to the gym while black, asking for the Waffle House corporate number while black and reading C.S. Lewis while black, among others.”

That’s all before we get to encounters with the police. Michael Brown comes to mind. So does Freddie Gray. And Eric Garner. And Philando Castile. And Jordan Edwards. And Stephon Clark.

Part of this is because of a white tendency to view the police as keepers of racial order. A bigger part is the flagrantly unnecessary, discriminatory, and dehumanizing brutality some officers choose to adopt against black individuals. All of this is what sparked Colin Kaepernick to protest during the national anthem. In his own words:

“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. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The NFL claims it values patriotism. It’s part of the NFL’s brand. The NFL gets paid to encourage associations between the NFL and patriotism. But what it really values is nationalism. Nationalism is a loyalty to one’s country, no matter what, even it’s in the wrong. Patriotism is a loyalty to one’s country, so much so that you recognize its faults and want to better it.

The NBA already has national anthem policy. But there’s a reason you don’t hear the NBA being criticized for it: its players are at the forefront of athlete-activism, and nobody fears being penalized for bringing attention to social injustice. Players don’t feel a need to protest during the national anthem because their voices aren’t in danger of being oppressed. This has been part of the NBA’s brand ever since the days of Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Roger Goodell says its “dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society.” To borrow a quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “It was not the man’s brain that was speaking; it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness like the quacking of a duck.”

If something quacks like a duck, and it looks like a duck, it’s most likely not an eagle. Don’t be fooled into thinking the NFL cares about black lives. Don’t be fooled into thinking Roger Goodell is a bald-eagle. One final quote, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”:

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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