Unity can’t save the NFL now

You have to pick a side.

(AP Photo / Edit by Diana Ofosu)
(AP Photo / Edit by Diana Ofosu)

Next week, at the previously-scheduled Fall League Meetings in New York City, NFL owners will meet with representatives from the NFLPA and select NFL players to discuss the most talked-about issue in the league this season. It’s not Ezekiel Elliott, or concussions, or even yet another discussion over what exactly constitutes a catch. This crucial discussion will be about the ongoing protests for racial justice during the national anthem.

“There has been no change in the current policy regarding the anthem,” the NFL and NFLPA said in a joint statement this week, directly countering a false tweet by President Donald Trump that praised the NFL for making it mandatory for players to stand during the national anthem. “The agenda will be a continuation of how to make progress on the important social issues that players have vocalized.”

There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered. Will the NFL owners give in to Trump’s wish and make standing during the anthem mandatory? If they don’t, will the NFL promise to protect players on teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins whose owners have forbidden players from protesting? What, exactly, does “progress on important social issues” look like from both a league perspective, and from a player perspective? And what are any of them going to do about Trump’s very public obsession with the subject?

There is honestly no telling what is to come from these meetings, but there’s one outcome that would be particularly unhelpful — a blanket statement of unity.

As powerful as unity can be, NFL owners, executives, and even some players have recently been leaning on the concept as a shield to keep the real issues at bay. A movement that Colin Kaepernick began last year by taking a knee during the national anthem as a way to draw attention to and protest police brutality and systemic racism has been warped by billionaires into meaningless messages of equality and teamwork.

Last month, for instance, after Trump referred to players who choose to protest as “sons of bitches,” many NFL owners released empty statements of solidarity with its players — Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill praised his players for their charity work and noted that football “has the ability to inspire rather than divide;” New York Jets Chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson said the Jets are “proud of our players and and their strong commitment to work in our community to make a positive, constructive, and unifying impact.”

Johnson, whose brother, Woody Johnson, is Trump’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, stood arm-in-arm with his players on the field to show “unity” the weekend after Trump’s remarks, as did other owners such as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who kneeled with his players before the anthem, and then stood up with them when it began.

The NFL even re-aired an overwrought ad that was supposed to highlight unity. “Inside these lines, we can bring out the best in one another, and live united,” the ad proclaimed.

But togetherness for the sake of togetherness is not progress; in fact, it’s a detour to nowhere.

The point of the protests in the first place was to raise awareness of and start a conversation about ugly truths in our country that our government and society at large have upheld, or at the very least have turned a blind eye to, for far too long. There is no playbook for moving past these problems; you have to do the difficult work of engaging with them. That means talking directly about racism, not about vague concepts like “social change” and “community.” That means saying the names Charlene Lyles and Terrence Crutcher. That means saying Black Lives Matter. That means meaning black lives matter.

It’s uncomfortable for a group of predominantly white billionaires to directly face these problems; it’s hard to acknowledge that the system in which you found such success was purposefully established to prevent people of color from achieving similar success. But that’s the point. This isn’t supposed to be easy.

NFL owners need to think about the racial slurs that are hurled at players who have protested. They need to look at their social media mentions. They need to listen again to the words President Donald Trump said three weeks ago when he crudely attacked NFL players protesting during the national anthem in front of a large crowd of his supporters.

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” Trump shouted at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama. “He is fired. He’s fired!”

They need to hear the way Trump’s supporters cheered and jeered in the crowd when he made that statement. They need to think about not what it means for the NFL as a whole that Trump’s supporters feel that way, but about what impact that hearing those words and jeers could have on the black players who are taking a knee to draw attention to injustices in their communities and culture. They need to care less about the bottom line, and more about the concerns of the players who are putting their bodies and minds on the line in order to make that bottom line even possible.

Trump and his friends at Fox News are trying their best to turn these ongoing protests into a debate over patriotism. In the narrative they’ve written, this is a battle between loving America or hating America, between supporting our troops or spitting on our troops. But that’s never been what this is about. This is about Anton Sterling and Philando Castile, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. It’s about mass incarceration and police militarization.

In this context, it’s easy to see the unity and equality the NFL owners so badly want to represent is built upon a lie. The notion that players raising awareness of these issues hate America obscures the fact that the players are Americans, too — that they want this country to be better, but that they are realistic enough to know progress can’t be achieved until some harsh realities are confronted.

The NFL wants this to go away. They want the protests to stop, Trump’s tweets to disappear, and the debates about the definition of a catch to dominate the headlines once again.

But there’s ultimately only one way forward.

This fight isn’t about whether or not there is equality inside the lines of the football field, it’s about the fact that there definitely isn’t equality outside the lines of the football field. African Americans in this country are still oppressed on a day in, day out basis. You either want to work towards fixing that, or you don’t. Those are the two sides. This upcoming week, the NFL needs to make a decision on which side it’s on.