The NFL this week admitted that it has been too slow in hearing the message from its players. It was in 2016 that Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the playing of the American national anthem. When asked about his actions, he responded that it wasn’t his anthem because America didn’t give a damn about him or anyone who looked like him. Racial injustice isn’t new in America. It is older than than country itself, with many of the founding fathers being slaveholders. For a nation that proudly thumps its chest and proclaims itself “number 1 in the world,” the disparity between white and black is the family secret that no one wants to talk about.
Even today, after all that has happened over the past few weeks, there is still a sizeable percentage of the population who still believe that there is nothing to see here, that America is just fine and nothing needs to change.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has encouraged teams to look at signing Kaepernick, who was let go by the 49ers at the end of the 2016 season and hasn’t seen the field since. This is a complete turnaround from the Commissioner, who oversaw one of the most stunning silences in sports as the world wondered why an above average quarterback was out of work. It is entirely incomprehensible that a man who led his team to the Superbowl and the NFC Championship game in successive years in 2012 and 2013 still couldn’t find a home for four straight seasons. No person can reasonably argue that a player with a passer rating nudging 90 is somehow an inferior option to the second or third string QB’s on most teams. Kaepernick and the NFL settled out of court on a collusion case that seemed pretty cut and dried. There was clearly a tacit agreement, spoken or unspoken, among the franchise owners (almost all of whom are white billionaires) that this player wasn’t a fit for their team.
Now 32, Kaepernick has been forced to miss out on the best years of his career. Given the lifespan of the average NFL player, this is completely unforgivable. Should athletes be allowed to speak up on racial issues? Damn right they should! For generations, athletes have essentially been told to stay in their own lane when it comes to speaking up in public. The perception has always been that these matters should be left to the experts. A white “news” anchor famously told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” This is the core of the problem.
For too long, black voices have been dismissed by white people as irrelevant when discussing racial inequality. When daily persecution and unfair treatment are the topics on the table then African Americans ARE the experts. They are who we should be looking to for the truth. Not privileged white billionaires and conservative commentators.
Branch Rickey was the President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he signed Jackie Robinson to a Major League Baseball contract in 1947, thus breaking the colour barrier in that sport for the first time. The agreement they had was that no matter what was said to him, no matter the threats made against him, he was not to retaliate. Despite experiencing the very worst of human nature from fans, opposition players and even teammates, Robinson never retaliated. He later said that it was because Mr Rickey had told him it’s not just for him, but for every African American ball player that was to follow. Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated across the MLB each year where every player sports the number 42.
More than six decades after Robinson walked out onto Ebbets Field for the first time, the sporting world has largely become a shining example of what can be achieved when people of all backgrounds work together and focus on a common goal. Athletes are in the perfect position to teach us how society can benefit from this same sense of unity.
People on both sides of the debate are angry right now and we are all waiting to see where leadership will come from. Is this move by the NFL too little too late, or might it just be the first tentative step on the road towards a truly United States of America?