Fall is my favorite time of the year. There is an easiness to the season. Crisp weather, dope jackets, a relaxing drive up the Hudson Parkway with the fall foliage coloring your way to upstate New York. Pumpkin spice lattes, Trader Joe’s unlimited supply of all things pumpkin, hearty soups, and the yearly discussion of “You like pumpkin pie?” Homecoming, college football, “Go Blue!” texts on Saturday mornings for a University of Michigan win. Fourth-quarter music releases, Oscar-contending movie releases, the World Series. Fall centers me.
This past Sunday, a strange feeling came over me — the feeling of normalcy. All because I sat on the couch and turned on my television to watch the first Sunday game of the NFL season. The sun was coming into my window, the way that it reflects differently in the fall hue. And for the first time, I felt normal, my fall tradition uninterrupted. It was so unnormal that I had a moment with myself to mark the mood. In a year where trauma has been a constant backdrop, mental weariness has become the rallying cry for Black Americans, and so much loss all around, I felt gratitude for what we still have.
My phone rang. “Are you going to write about this NFL season?” my friend Craig asked. I smiled and said that I would.
I would, because President Trump lost.
President Trump lost to a Black man. A Black man who was willing to lose it all. A Black man who stood tall in the face of adversity. A Black man who put his culture and community on his back. A sports hero who took an improbable journey to the Super Bowl — and then, the moment he engaged in silent protest, became treated as a villain. Colin Kaepernick may have lost the battle without a new NFL contract, but with the NFL playing the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” alongside the “Star Spangled Banner,” he has won the war.
Nothing brings a nation together more than “Sunday Night Football.” And this Sunday night, the nation will see athletes freely expressing themselves in kneeling, locker room protest, shirts with social justice narratives, and helmets expressing social stances.
Trump, in an unprecedented manner for a custodian of the Oval Office, has been using the weight of the Resolute Desk to threaten and taunt Kaepernick and his colleagues on Twitter. “The NFL players are at it again,” he tweeted at one point, “taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem. Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love…” In doing so, he has given cover to team owners for infringing on players’ rights, to a league that already had a complicated relationship with race, and to his political base to perpetuate racist dog whistles and amplify the false narrative that kneeling is anti-American.
Not anymore. The field has shifted. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans are ready to support athletes’ right to peacefully protest against social injustice. And according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, despite “people of color at the NFL league office in a management role decreasing from 28.3% in 2018 to 28.0% in 2019,” the NFL has more than 70% Black players. So why wouldn’t we support these Black players — players who are risking their quality of life by engaging in work that can lead to irreversible CTE, sacrificing their bodies every week for your entertainment — who want to protest racial violence and unchecked police killings of Black men and women?
So, President Trump, let’s talk.
Twitter Exhibit A: “…NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
The Truth: The U.S is backing the players.
The Verdict: You lose.
Twitter Exhibit B: “We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!”
The Truth: You’ll need to add the Black National Anthem to the White House ceremony as the NFL will play the song proudly at the start of each game. As for “no escaping to locker rooms,” athletes are no longer required to be on the field for the anthems.
The Verdict: You lose.
Twitter Exhibit C in response to the NFL not standing for the national anthem: “…not with me watching!”
The Truth: The NFL has revered course — kneeling during the anthems is no longer prohibited.
The Verdict: You lose.
Our nation is experiencing a reckoning on race. America is finally having the uncomfortable conversations we’ve avoided for polite society. The awakening to the hard truth that we are not living in a post-racial America due the election of the first Black president. The video of George Floyd is proof. Sustained protests in wealthy neighborhoods like SoHo and Beverly Hills are proof. Voter suppression tactics seen in the Wisconsin and Kentucky primaries are proof.
Nothing brings a nation together more than Sunday Night Football. And this Sunday night, the nation will see athletes freely expressing themselves in kneeling, locker room protest, shirts with social justice narratives, and helmets expressing social stances. You have no choice but to talk about race, police brutality, and justice. Kaepernick made this possible.
I’m not naive to the fact that some of these measures feel performative — that they come across as inauthentic, a reflection of the fact that race is the advocacy issue of the moment. The test of the NFL’s sincerity will be if it can keep the solidarity with its players and the Black community throughout the entire season. Will the league’s support prove to be of the moment, or will next season come with more impact?
Two rebuttals came from onetime NFL athletes, both of which (and both of whom) I respect.