Colin Kaepernick may have settled his collusion suit against the NFL, but he already exposed the organization as a beneficiary of white supremacy.
Kaepernick filed his suit after the ex-NFL quarterback felt he was blackballed by league executives for kneeling during the national anthem. He began his protest in August 2016, but he was only noticed after three games when then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump criticized him. When pressed for comment, the quarterback said he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people.” It didn’t take long for one NFL executive to label him a traitor and for front offices to worsen their rosters just to keep him out of the league.
Equating Kaepernick’s decision to kneel with an act of treason is laughable: the quarterback is free to hold any opinion about the United States. On the contrary, the goal of Kaepernick’s protest was to improve the country, not destroy it. While some conservatives complained that Kaepernick’s protest was destructive to race relations, that perspective rests on the assumption that Americans accept the current status of race relations. Activists like Kaepernick have repeatedly demonstrated their discontent with how the burdens of mass incarceration and police brutality fall disproportionately on black Americans. Kaepernick critics demonstrate either that they fail to consider minorities’ grievances or that they actively support racial inequality.
Another conservative response to Kaepernick has been to call him ungrateful. Fox News host Tucker Carlson stated that the quarterback and his supporters “hate and resent the very system that made their prosperity, their success, possible.” But Kaepernick’s success is an exception to the racial bias within society, not a reason to support the status quo. The wealth gap between black and white Americans only grew in recent years, and even black Americans with professional degrees are still paid less than their white counterparts.
Despite conservative complaints, national anthem protests resurged in the 2017 season even as Kaepernick went unsigned. NFL executives were quick to respond, spurred by fears of tanking television ratings and Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to walk out of an Oct. 8 game. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench players who “disrespected the flag,” and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called for a series of meetings on the issue.
At these meetings, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair called for players to stop their protests, saying “fellas, stop that other business; let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results.” But the next day at an owners-only meeting, McNair took a different approach. He argued that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Although McNair apologized for the gaffe, his remarks help to illustrate the exploitative undercurrent of the NFL.
The league depends on the pipeline of college athletes that enter it every year. These previously-unpaid, primarily black football players are then given relatively cheap contracts that allow teams to replace older veterans for less money. While the average NFL salary is $2.7 million, in 2018, hundreds of players earned the league minimum of $465,000. That’s still good money, but players typically play for fewer than three years and are taxed heavily throughout that period. Few players leave the league as multi-millionaires.
Even fewer make it to the NFL in the first place. 2018’s 253 drafted players is a small fraction of the 16,236 draft-eligible individuals — all of whom went unpaid for the entirety of their college careers. Why doesn’t the NCAA compensate its athletes? Some argue that student-athletes are compensated with scholarships and education. But research by University of Massachusetts professor Tatishe Nteta and others posits white racial resentment as a structural cause of not paying college athletes. Using data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, researchers found that white Americans opposed paying college athletes more frequently when pushed to think about black players than when they thought about white players.
With that in mind, McNair’s racist slip should come as no surprise. Neither, then, should Jerry Jones’. A leaked video from 2013 that surfaced mere weeks later showed the Cowboys owner cracking a joke intended for a newlywed bride: “Hey, Jennifer, congratulations on the wedding. Now, you know [the groom is] with a black girl tonight, don’t you?” That McNair and Jones were both heavily involved in the NFL’s governing process shows how far racism penetrates the league.
Some may dismiss racist remarks from within the NFL as outliers or inconsequential, but only the most egregious examples get reported. Giving the rest of the NFL a pass because it uses less offensive language while exploiting black youth is unacceptable: doing so merely demonstrates how low the threshold for acceptable white behavior is in contemporary America.
If white conservatives want black athletes to stand for the national anthem, they must listen to Kaepernick and make America worth standing for.
Isaiah Sirois (19C) is from Nashua, N.H.