The NFL Is More Comfortable With Concussions Than Conscience

If you needed any more proof that the most important football player in United States is currently without a team, look no further than 345 Park Avenue in New York City—NFL headquarters. On Wednesday night an estimated 2,000–3,000 people gathered there to rally for Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who cannot find a home because he dared use his platform to protest against police violence.

A block away from crammed outdoor martini bars where Ivy League bankers enjoyed after-work happy hours, speakers excoriated the National Football League to raucous cheers with an energy that kept NFL executives pinned in their suites.

The message was simple: “Colin Kaepernick had our back when he stood for black lives. Now we have his.”

The event, hosted by Mark Thompson and Symone Sanders of Make it Plain Radio on Sirius/XM, included City Council members, religious leaders, and activists ranging from high-school freshmen to folks who attended the Selma march on Edmund Pettus Bridge. If you needed any hint on the vibe, the event started with the national anthem: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Speakers called out the NFL for more than the league’s treatment of Kaepernick. Rev. Jamal Bryant asked about the moral center of a league that seems “fine if players have a concussion but not a conscience,” a league that will sign players convicted of violent crimes but not a player who used nonviolent protest during the national anthem to raise awareness of state violence.

Other speakers posed the issue of structural racism in a league in which 70 percent of players are black but there are very few black head coaches or executives and there has never been a black team owner. They called out a league ownership that gave millions to Donald Trump and now collectively refuses to offer Kaepernick a contract. But speaker after speaker also underlined the point that this was about something far bigger than the makeup of NFL rosters. This was about whether, in Donald Trump’s America, dissent would still be tolerated. This was about the Nazis that marched in Charlottesville and Trump’s assertion that “fine people” stood with those wearing the swastika.

The movement seems to be growing, too. Rafael Cruz, one of the protesters at the rally, said that Kaepernick’s lockout has pushed other athletes to find their own avenues for protest. He argued that the NFL’s decision to exclude him might ultimately help to change attitudes within the sport: “Maybe this is a good thing.… All of a sudden, the Browns are taking knees, [Marshawn] Lynch is [sitting]. I’d like to see higher-profile players do it, and I think it’s going to happen. I’d like to see white players do it, too.”

Until recently, however, no white NFL players had dared to take such a stand. The first one to do so was Browns tight end Seth DeValve, who on Monday night became the first white NFL player to kneel during the national anthem, after Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett had called for other players to “step up and…speak up” last week. The move was long overdue, and should have come before the events in Charlottesville. But even so, for Cruz, the move still carried considerable weight: “It’s very important that we break that barrier that it not just be people of color that are doing it—it affects us all.”

Chichi Chinwude, a 26-year-old activist, agreed. She has recently been having trouble finding a job in New York City, and said that, although she doesn’t watch football, the issues of racism and police brutality that Kaepernick has spoken out against affect her, too. But she also argued that symbolism and protests only go so far—she pointed to a sign she was holding, which read: “Want to see change? Affect their pockets.”

“We can march, we can do all of these things but it’s not going to make a difference unless money is also involved,” she said. “Money is literally power, so we need to hit them where it hurts.”

For Chinwude, the answer is simple: Boycott the NFL until it offers to take Kaepernick back. Earlier this year, Forbes reported that the league had lost around 2 million viewers on average in 2016 (although the reasons why that’s the case are hotly debated). Now that more players are beginning to take a knee, a large-scale boycott could mount enough pressure to force the NFL into taking Kaepernick back.

We’ll have to wait until the regular season to see the numbers. But for now, some protesters, like Harry B. Sando Jr., have made up their minds: “I’ve already stopped watching.”

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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