If you want a modern example of nakedly racist authoritarianism in America, look no further than the National Football League.
The NFL announced Wednesday that “all team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem” and that a “club will be fined if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” If a player wants to not stand for the anthem, he can stay in the locker room until after the anthem is done.
Make no mistake: Forcing players to go inside the locker room or face fines is a blatant attack on the free speech of black players (who make up almost 70 percent of the league). As a reminder, the black players were never protesting the flag or the anthem itself. They were making a statement about the racism, injustice and police brutality in the United States. However, the NFL, like America in so many ways, has shown that it is more interested in silencing the speech of black players than in “advancing the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of society,” as its new policy claims. In attempting to make white America comfortable, the NFL has decided to to deny players the very freedom of speech that our military members have fought for and died to protect. In that, the NFL’s policy is way more disrespectful to what the flag and anthem represent than a player kneeling could ever be. President Trump’s tweets in support of forcing players to stand and his comments about protesting players — “get that son of a bitch off the field” — and that if they don’t stand, they “shouldn’t be playing” — mean that he is on the side of censoring Americans.
The NFL said that it was “honored to work with its players to drive progress” on social issues. Yet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement never mentions the words “race” or “racism” — the original reasons that the players decided to take a knee in the first place. And let’s not forget that Colin Kaepernick, who has been effectively blacklisted from playing in the league for taking a knee, was not even invited to the player-owner meetings discussing social justice issues and NFL policy.
The NFL’s plantation-style politics are trickling down into our nation’s educational system. There have been scores of examples of schools across the country punishing black children for not standing during the anthem or Pledge of Allegiance. Writer Kirsten West Savali took to Twitter last week to say that her 9-year-old son was kicked out of class for taking a knee during class. She tweeted that since her son was 5, “he’s always taken stances against injustice. He knows that police officers are gunning down his people with impunity. He made the decision to take a knee on his own and I’m so proud of him. They will not dim his light.” Now Savali’s son knows firsthand that in this country, there will always be consequences for standing up for one’s rights. Freedom is never free.
Maybe the NFL is desperate to hold on to its fans, given declining ratings and ticket sales. But considering the league’s awful handling of perpetrators of domestic violence, and the fact that its players suffer unimaginable pain and brain damage from this primitive sport, perhaps it’s time for the end of NFL football altogether. I grew up watching the Dallas Cowboys but stopped last year after Jerry Jones wanted to force Dallas players to stand. I’ll never watch an NFL game again. Black fans can take a stand against the league by refusing to watch the games or buy merchandise or game tickets. Why should we support an organization that wants to silence us? This is about way more than football. For many of us black people, this is our lives. None of this is a game.
It’s perhaps fitting that the NFL’s policy is coming almost 50 years after the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners respectively of gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, raised their fists in a black power salute during the medal ceremony. The players were booed and heckled by the audience. The next day, the International Olympic Committee forced the pair to leave the Olympic Village and spread rumors that they had been stripped of their medals. The U.S. Olympic Committee said that the “untypical exhibitionism of these athletes violates the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship which are so highly valued in the states” and that “such immature behavior is a willful disregard of Olympic principles.” Smith was kicked out of the Army. Media commentators compared the men to Nazis and “black-skinned stormtroopers.” Both men received death threats. Fast forward to today, and the image of Smith and Carlos is now iconic. There is now a statue of the two men at San Jose State University.
My hopeful prediction is that 50 years from now, history will not be kind to Roger Goodell or the NFL for the actions they took this week.