“Football has always served as the great unifier, bringing people together to celebrate the values of courage, commitment and achievement.”
That’s the opening line of the statement the Redskins released Sunday night, and it — along with virtually everything else that’s happened over the past few days — has left me with more questions than answers. Such as these:
Was football the great unifier when these same Redskins resisted integration years after the rest of the league had changed, with owner George Preston Marshall saying “all the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?” Was it the great unifier during the labor disputes of the ’80s, when striking defensive tackle Darryl Grant referred to scabs as “guys who would steal shoes off a dead man.” Was it the great unifier when the Redskins sued a local newspaper, or when the Redskins sued local fans, or when fans in San Diego and St. Louis dumped their merchandise as their franchises abandoned them for fairer lands? “Their home cities and hometown fans are commodities to be abandoned once they no longer suit the league’s purposes,” St. Louis’s mayor said after the Rams took off. Was it the great unifier this week, when angry fans burned their gear and canceled their Sunday Ticket subscriptions?
What message was Daniel Snyder trying to send by standing on the field and linking arms with his players Sunday night? Was he attempting to rebuke President Trump — to whose inauguration he donated $1 million? If so, why was there not even an allusion to Trump’s recent remarks in the team’s statement? Does Snyder regret his financial support? Is he concerned that overt criticism would hurt his chances to move the Redskins back to the RFK Stadium site? And if he wasn’t on the sidelines to offer even a modest rebuke to the president’s message, then why exactly was he there? Really: Why was he there?
In fact, why has the entire NFL suddenly become obsessed with unity? “Great show of unity,” Commissioner Roger Goodell tweeted Monday night, when Jerry Jones — who gave $1 million of his own to the Trump inaugural through a corporation — also locked arms with his players. “It was real easy for everybody to see the message of unity and equality was getting pushed aside or diminished by controversy,” Jones said, with the implication that controversy is to be avoided, that his own act was not controversial.
“What our country needs right now is a message of unity, civility and mutual respect,” Chargers owner Dean Spanos said in a Statement on Chargers Team Unity. “The Chicago Bears are proud to support our players, coaches and all members of our organization to bring peace and unity together through football,” Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement. “Sports have long been a unifying force,” Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said in a statement. “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in his statement. “A NATION DIVIDED; SPORTS UNITED” read the Sports Illustrated cover.
Is this really the issue that has roiled pro football over the past year? A lack of unity? Is the game now more unified than it was last week — and if so, to what end? United against whom? United for what?
In fact, does anyone remember that the man who launched this current moment did so to prompt “real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people” — on issues of race, and justice, and inequality? And that that man, Colin Kaepernick, remains out of a job, with NFL teams coincidentally united in their disinterest? And that when one team, the Ravens, considered the possibility of signing Kaepernick, they felt the need to crowd-source that possibility with their fan base? And that they found the opposite of unity — “every time I hear something negative, I hear something positive,” their owner said then, because, in fact, there isn’t much unity right now. Don’t you sometimes have to make hard choices in the face of disunity?
And why is it that a starring figure in the NBA, Gregg Popovich, seems to understand better than most NFL leaders what emotions protest is meant to inspire? “There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change,” Popovich said this week. “People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable.”
Did anyone feel uncomfortable when they saw NFL players locking arms in unity? Isn’t “unity” about the most comforting buzzword in the public relations handbook? If the NFL had launched a bland call for unity last autumn, with players agreeing to link arms with their owners during the national anthem, would anyone have noticed? Would anyone have cared?
And what of the players linking arms with Snyder? Josh Norman, for example, spoke with great passion and emotion for about 20 minutes Sunday’s game, about how offended he had been by Trump’s comments, noting that he had no quarrel with the president until the president took on his sport. What message was thus sent by those linked arms? That this NFL team is unified — against anyone who attacks it? That personal insults will beget a strong response — in the form of more personal insults? (“Not my president,” Norman said.) Does that remind you of anyone?
And in fact, don’t the various statements released by NFL owners suggest, if anything, a lack of unity? “Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson wrote. “We fully support our players’ use of their freedom of speech and peaceful action to highlight the existing racial and other divides in our country,” Seahawks President Peter McLoughlin wrote.
And while unity sounds friendly — a word used by Kaepernick, by the Packers players, and by the current and former players who recently sent a lengthy memo on racial equality to the league — isn’t it now putting a veneer of agreement on top of issues on which there isn’t much unity? Do the issues cited by those activist players — like bail reform and the war on drugs and excessive sentencing and police accountability — inspire unity?
The Redskins statement said the team “will work to address divisions and bring unity, civility and respect to our greater community,” but why say that now? Did anything in particular inspire that goal? Might that have been worth pointing out?
The image of Snyder with arms locked with his players was a memorable one, and it landed on A1 of The Washington Post. But what was the message? What was the meaning? Why was he there? Two days later, I still don’t know.
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