Justin Scott, Columnist // Illustration By Cynthia Tran Vo
It’s no secret that athletes and musicians have an incredibly strong influence on society. However, in the current digital age, those with any cultural influence have a new-found power and platform. Over the next few months, this column will discuss the dialogues and stories revolving around the worlds of music and sports and how they often tell a far greater story.
Perhaps the best example of this in recent years was re-ignited recently when Nike announced that Colin Kaepernick would be the face of the company’s 30th anniversary campaign. While a sports company announcing that a famous athlete will be at the forefront of their marketing campaign usually wouldn’t even draw a second look, Kaepernick hasn’t been relevant as an active athlete in a few years.
On Aug. 26, 2016 Kaepernick didn’t rise for the national anthem – he sat. He sat on his bench in protest of the injustices faced by minority communities in America, especially police violence against black men. His original protest took place during an already heated political climate surrounding the very issues he was protesting.
Eventually, after dozens more players across the league joined him, the story of the kneeling players became bigger than the games they were preluding. The NFL had a real chance to embrace their players’ voices and aid in social change. Instead, they did the exact opposite.
Although there were moments where the league tried to portray a supportive image – like when Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, knelt with his team in what appeared to be a cringe-worthy PR move – it was clear that the NFL had no intention of supporting the movement. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair was even quoted as saying that allowing the protests was like “letting the inmates run the prison.”
It was moments like this that Kaepernick’s protest showed just how far behind the NFL and many of its fans are from other professional sports leagues.
The NBA, for example, seems to almost encourage its athletes to use their platforms for more than selling products and pushing endorsements. It also has no time for owners or employees, be it players, coaches or administrators, who exhibit poor values – just think Donald Sterling. That’s not to say that the NFL doesn’t also have the same approach, as the Carolina Panthers’ ex-owner Jerry Richardson found out, the league just doesn’t seem to have a problem with an old white owner comparing his mostly black players to prison inmates. And why would it when America’s president is one of the loudest opponents of the protest?
The main reason that the NFL has taken the stances they have though, is money. Roger Goodell can’t risk alienating most of the league’s supporters, who at this point are convinced that the protests are disrespecting the US Army – even after Kaepernick met with fellow players who were also Army veterans and concluded that kneeling would be the most respectful form of protest.
The issue with the NFL then, is that they’re willing to be on the wrong side of history in order to stay alive.
In September 2017, the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, was asked whether he was worried about the political comments and actions of the league’s players and coaches and how it would affect the Association’s business. His response was, “I believe that there’s a huge gap in our society right now, and it’s incredibly divisive. I believe this league can play a role in attempting to unify people.”
A few years earlier, when Lebron James and many other players wore shirts that read “I can’t breathe” right after the Eric Garner tragedy, the NBA did nothing even though the shirts were a clear uniform violation.
None of this is to say that any league is perfect or that the NFL has it all wrong. Adam Silver has said that he doesn’t want players to kneel during the anthem. And after the NFL announced that it would likely be fining players who chose to take a knee during the anthem, Christopher Johnson, the President and CEO of the New York Jets, said that he and the team would be covering any fine a player incurred (for kneeling). There have been positive and negative moves made by the players, owners and officials of all leagues. So, what makes the NFL worse?
When Donald J. Trump, the “leader of the free world” decided it shouldn’t be so free, saying that players who knelt “maybe shouldn’t be in the country,” the NFL bent over and followed suit. They clamped down even more on protests and went all-in on the president’s populist messaging. The NBA on the other hand, saw players and coaches alike openly criticize the president, with logical and thought-out statements. And Lebron James, the face of the NBA, has been the loudest player of all – refusing to shut up and dribble.
As social figures whose opinions were discounted and filtered in the past, athletes now have the power to connect directly with their fans and a wider audience, something people like Lebron James have taken full advantage of. Although the NFL’s fan base is drastically different than the NBA’s, Goodell should follow Adam Silver’s lead and risk losing some of his league’s fans if it means doing the right thing. And who knows, a move like that could actually help the NFL – after all, Nike’s sales went up 30 per cent after the Kaepernick campaign was announced. In a time when society is as divided as it is now, it’s not necessarily a league’s job to take a stance on important social issues, but they shouldn’t stop their players from doing the same.