By Richard O’Brien (@richard_obs)
Although the fight for equality certainly didn’t start within the NFL, and changes within the NFL won’t be considered the end goal, the NFL has become somewhat of a focal battleground by many within the media and the public.
Since the murder of George Floyd, discussion around race and equality within the NFL has been highly visible and impactful in terms of general awareness.
Someone known equally as a Superbowl finalist as much as an activist. As most people are aware, whether a fan of the NFL or not, the former 49er was famously ‘blackballed’ for his protests against police brutality and racial inequality.
Alongside former teammate Eric Reid and numerous other African American players throughout the league, Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem. Although Reid would later go onto rejoining the NFL with the Carolina Panthers; Kaepernick seen as the figurehead of the movement within the NFL, is yet to rejoin a team.
Since then, football has had a spotlight shone on it whether rightly or wrongly. Even President Trump took it upon himself to publicly criticise players who refused to stand for the national anthem and recommended his followers to refuse to watch football unless the protests are stopped.
The Washington Redskins
The most significant development in the NFL since the ignition of Black Lives Matters protests across the globe has been the discussion around renaming the Washington Redskins.
Despite calls for the name to be changed in the past, Dan Snyder was very public as the owner of the organisation in 2015 that the franchise would “never change” from the Washington Redskins as long as he was owner. Whilst Shynder has appeared to be reluctant to change his stance, this took a turn on 2nd July when FedEx approached the organisation to change their name.
As the naming rights holder of Washington’s 82,000 seat stadium, a deal worth $205m expiring in 2025, FedEx has displayed that money talks. Resisting public pressure is one thing, but ignoring a sponsor who invests around $8m per year is another.
Since FedEx made this request, Snyder and the team have made an official statement that they will undergo a “review of the team’s name”. According to Stephen A. Smith, a pundit on the ESPN show First Take, a new name has been decided upon and would be revealed before the upcoming season.
Looking at social media, the favoured candidates as the new franchise name appears to be either the Natives or Redtails. The meaning behind the name ‘Wahington Natives’ is straightforward and effective in displaying this change in perspective, whereas the ‘Washington Redtails’ is inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American fighter pilots in World War 2 who gained notoriety for their infamous red markings on the tail end of their planes.
Although members of the BLM movement have been emboldened by this decision by the Washington based franchise, many claim this is more of a ceremonial victory as opposed to the change that is necessary in modern society. The consensus among activists is that this was a decision which should have been made previously, and that it does little to change past wrongdoings or future acts of racism within the league, but just reflects society’s views more accurately. Whilst it is a good step, much more meaningful action is necessary before the NFL is a truly equal body.
Another key story surrounding BLM within the NFL was the dissent from within the league itself.
Headed by Bryndon Minter, a social media employee for the NFL, employees of the NFL including those in social media and the players themselves crafted a video holding the league and specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell to account over the NFL’s lackluster initial statement following the death of George Floyd. On the Saturday following on from his death, the NFL issued a statement but was quick to resume to ‘business as usual’ causing unease among Minter and his colleagues who were having to post highlights and clips as the globe erupted into an out pouring of emotion over the issue of racial discrimination.
As a means to create serious action, Minter contacted Saints Wide Receiver Michael Thomas to help create the video which has since gone viral.
The video showed players such as Odell Beckham Jr, Tyrann Mathieu and DeAndre Hopkins among others united in a message directed at the NFL for their failure to condemn racism and show support for Black Lives Matter. Among their requests, the players urged the NFL to apologise for silencing the players on the issue of oppression and inequality and to allow players to peacefully protest in the future.
Following on from the release of the video, within a series of hours Goddell made a video in which he echoed the calls of the players and vowed to act upon these calls to create a more equal league. Such inequalities include the fact that around 70% of players are African American but less than 20% people from this demographic make-up on air talent for the NFL as well as there being only 3 black head coaches and 31 of 32 (96%) of NFL owners being white.
After the commissioner’s second statement, players and staff across the league have voiced their opinions on the BLM movement, with the vast majority in support. Players including veterans such as Richard Sherman and Malcolm Jenkins have been particularly vocal in their support of BLM and reaffirming their support for Kaepernick and figureheads of the sport including Pat Mahomes too have made statements about the need for change within both the NFL and society.
Saying this, some members of the NFL have landed themselves in hot water over the issue.
Vic Fangio, head coach of the Denver Broncos, voiced his opinion that society should be more reflective of an NFL locker room due to the lack of any racism and inequality within the league.
The head coach was quick to retract his comments after discussion with his players who made it clear the discrimination players from ethnic minority backgrounds received routinely, both in and out of football. Since then, the organisation joined a BLM protest together as an organisation in Denver to show their support.
Another instance reminiscent of Fangio is that of Saints QB Drew Brees. Despite Michael Thomas’ instrumental involvement in the aforementioned viral video, his QB failed to reflect his views by stating to Yahoo! in an interview that he would “never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag” by kneeling.
Alongside this interview, and previous comments which seemed to contradict the views of BLM, Brees like Fangio was quick to contact those who he had offended including Thomas.
Again, like Fangio, Brees has since been quick to backtrack on the comments he has made as misconstruing the purpose of the protests during the national anthem as against the military as opposed to police brutality and racial inequality.
After the discussion, players within the Saints organisation have shown support for Brees and his eagerness to correct his mistakes, although time will tell the lasting effect to both Fangio and Bress of the comments and how sincere people believe their apologies to be.
As alluded to earlier, the battle for racial equality is a lasting one and the NFL is merely one such highly public battleground. Whilst calls for change certainly didn’t start and wont end with the NFL, impactful change is yet to be seen and will only be achieved through sustained pressure. The conversation around racial inequality will continue and have only been enhanced by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amhaud Arbery and countless others.
The lasting consequences of the recent events in the NFL are yet to be seen, whether that has been players following the lead of NBA stars such as Kyrie Irving vowing to sit out the restart in Orlando or players shining a light on inequality within the sport.
But if anything has been learnt from activists on the issue of racial inequality such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Angela Davis is that change takes time and perseverance, so this won’t be the last on the issue.