These protests have sparked outrage and disgust from conservative fans, who grouse that sports should be free of politics, allowing them to enjoy games as an escape from everyday life. Over the years, these fans have benefited from the conservative leanings of owners, top-level NFL executives and coaches, who have constructed a culture steeped in nationalism, discipline and order, and pushed back against liberal politics in the game. This environment has encouraged conservative fans to see players like Kaepernick as “distractions” who stain the game, even while they happily laud players who espouse viewpoints that mesh with their own, such as supporting war, the military and efforts to put America first.
Professional football has long embraced conservative politics and stifled liberal dissent among its teams and players. The league’s owners maintained a “gentleman’s agreement” not to sign any black players to their teams between 1933 and 1946, which imposed a white racial hierarchy on the game.
When players successfully desegregated the game during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Washington was the last team to sign a black player in 1962), coaches, executives and fans responded vocally. Black players were kept from playing premier positions, such as quarterback, as well as coaching and administrative roles.
Although Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown recently generated cheers from the right for his critique of the current national anthem protesters, he stirred up hatred from conservatives by discussing racism in football in his 1964 autobiography. He received letters such as one that read, “[Y]ou and your kind are going to cause so much trouble in the good old U.S.A. that we will be forced to clean out this country with the likes of you and send you off to Alaska.”
Even politicians chimed in. In 1965, 21 black players boycotted the American Football League (now the American Football Conference) All Star Game because of the racism that players encountered in the host city, New Orleans. Although the players successfully forced the game to be moved to Houston, New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro declared that the 21 players did “themselves and their race a disservice” and “[i]f these men would play football only in cities where everybody loved them, they’d all be out of a job today.”
By the late 1960s, athletes also took on issues like the Vietnam War and capitalism, much to the dismay of the football order. Players like Dave Meggyesy of the St. Louis Cardinals who worked with the Students for a Democratic Society in their antiwar effort, and Chip Oliver from the Oakland Raiders, who identified with the 1960s counterculture, both critiqued football because of its focus on hyper-capitalism. “They fell for Communist hogwash and quit football,” New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank exclaimed, adding “[t]hese are the things that poison our young youth.”
Leading figures in professional football thought that the politics of Meggyesy and Oliver had no business in the sport. When a reporter asked coach Vince Lombardi, then of Washington, about Meggyesy, he lamented, “You will not hear any member of the Washington [football team] talking this way.” This belief stemmed not from Meggyesy and Oliver engaging in politics, but because of their liberal or leftist stances. Even as members of the football establishment blasted players like Meggyesy and Oliver for being political, they constructed a culture that highlighted conservative values like support for the military.
The NFL has sent players overseas on USO Tours since the 1960s. Upon returning from Vietnam, fans venerated Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier for his service to country. The league has also profited from cultivating pro-military sentiments, sometimes directly receiving funds from the military for honoring troops. Flyovers during opening weekend and playoff games push the agenda of the military industrial complex.
It’s not just war that conservative fans, coaches and owners seem to accept. They are pleased when superstars like Roger Staubach in 1974 and Joe Montana in 1987 cross picket lines during labor disputes. Until very recently, they also had no problem with players like legendary defensive end Reggie White spouting anti-LGBT tropes.
The pattern of backlash toward players who dared to voice liberal views, while supporting conservative impulses within the game, has continued to the present. Coaches, owners, some in the football media and even some players (current and former) speak of the national anthem protesters as “distractions,” an all-encompassing word that allows them to criticize the demonstrators while skirting charges of racism. And Kaepernick notably languishes without a job, because many owners wish to avoid the “distraction” that he brings.
Conservative critics attack players who champion liberal politics by suggesting they should simply “stick to sports.” Yet conservative players receive little of this blowback. Quarterback Tom Brady made the news when he had a “Make America Great Again” hat in the locker room during the early stages of the 2016 presidential election; however, no one accused him of being a distraction, or told him to stick to sports, let alone urged New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (himself a close friend of Donald Trump) to fine or cut Brady.
In an era where many are calling for a renewed emphasis on nationalism, conservative fans want a sport that venerates their principles, not challenges them. Therefore, the political battle between liberal athletes and the conservative football establishment will likely extend into the 2017 season and beyond, and potentially grow thanks to our volatile political climate. This offers the possibility that the game could transform into an engine for social change. Alternatively, however, conservative backlash toward liberal athletes may lead the game to become even more devoured by the hyper-partisanship plaguing the country. Let the games begin.