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'Corporations now want to be on the right side of history. The NFL should not be allowed to participate in that'

Author and ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines, and tells us why the NFL’s recent apology is unacceptable.

Colin Kaepernick takes a knee with Eli Harold (left) and Eric Reid (right) in 2016.
Colin Kaepernick takes a knee with Eli Harold (left) and Eric Reid (right) in 2016.
Image: Marcio Jose Sanchez

THIS WEEK’S GUEST on Behind the Lines is author and ESPN Senior Writer, Howard Bryant. 

Behind the Lines is our weekly sportswriting podcast here on The42, in which we speak with sportswriters about their career and their favourite pieces of writing.

It’s exclusive to members of The42, and to sign up and gain instant access to a 31-episode back catalogue, head on over to members.the42.ie.

Howard is an outstanding writer on racial discrimination and its structural causes in the United States. His most recent book, Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field, is an urgent, bracing and at times demoralised set of essays on the reality of being black in America.

Sport is a paradigm through which the book explores these issues, with the protests by and subsequent shunning of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick discussed in the opening chapter. 

Kaepernick, writes Bryant, “provided a metaphor for America along so many fault lines that talking about him meant talking about us.” 

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In 2016, Kaepernick, then at the San Francisco 49ers, took a knee during the national anthem ahead of games in protest at racism and police brutality in America. He was met with some support, but also by a hail of criticism, which argued Kapernick’s protest disrespected the American flag and the military. (That was a disingenuous rebuke, as Kaepernick consulted members of the military to decide on a dignified protest.) 

Kaepernick left the 49ers at the end of the 2016 season and has not worked since. In 2017 he and team-mate Eric Reid filed a grievance complaint against the NFL and its owners, accusing owners of colluding to keep them out of the league. They withdrew that claim in 2019, having reached a confidential settlement with the NFL. 

Although Kaepernick remains unemployed, his protest has been replicated by millions of people across the world since the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month. 

“I’m starting to refer to him as Obi-Wan Kenobi”, says Bryant on Behind the Lines.

“The NFL tried to silence him in 2017, they tried to demonise him in 2016, and yet here we are four years later and we are still talking about him. He’s like Obi-Wan: ‘If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’

“Here you are looking at people around the world taking a knee the same way he did, and it’s a very powerful thing. 

“People often said, ‘Oh, he’s irrelevant.’ Clearly he is not irrelevant. Clearly his name still comes up and the NFL, in trying to destroy him, made him a legendary figure this generation and future generations will remember.” 

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In September 2017, a month before Kaepernick and Reid filed their complaint, Donald Trump inflamed the situation by calling protesting NFL players “sons of bitches”, saying they should be fired for their stance. This was met by more protest: more than 200 players either sat or took a knee during the national anthem ahead of the next round of games. 

Ahead of the 2018 season, the NFL passed a rule effectively outlawing these protests, requiring players to stand during the anthem or else remain in the locker room. Any player protesting during the anthem would be punished by the League. 

Last weekend, however, the League performed a u-turn on that stance, with Commissioner Roger Goodell admitting the NFL were “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier”, and now “encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” 

“I think it is completely ineffective”, says Bryant of the NFL’s mea culpa.

“The NFL made its choice. You can see all the corporations coming out now talking about Black Lives Matter and caring about police brutality: they want to be on the right side of history. The NFL should not be allowed to participate in that. I cannot think of an American corporation that made it more clear how they felt [on this issue] than the NFL.

“The NFL made it perfectly clear what their position was. So for them to come out right now and say ‘We didn’t listen’ is completely unacceptable. 

“And, to do that while not mentioning the guy whose career you ruined. Roger Goodell’s statement the other day didn’t mention Colin Kaepernick by name. To me, it has very little value. How can you talk about not listening, and making a mistake, when you still haven’t reconciled with the guy who symbolises all of this, and haven’t given him an opportunity to resume his career.

I disagree with the idea the NFL ‘didn’t listen to our players’. Absolutely you listened. You listened, but you listened to everyone but him. You listened to the white players who were offended by kneeling. You listened to the white broadcasters who were offended by kneeling. You listened to the black players who you were working with to replace and neutralise Colin Kapernick, and you listened to the players who felt this was un-American. You didn’t listen to the one guy who was actually saying what you needed to hear. Let’s not say you didn’t listen. You just didn’t listen to him. It shows you how many chances we are willing to give to the power. People in power are always in a position of rehabilitation. I think it is laughable that they are going to be able to find their way around this. Of all places, the NFL? No corporation in America made their position more clear.”

Bryant does not expect the NFL to rehabilitate themselves over the shunning of Kaepernick. 

America loves itself, obviously, and we spend a lot of time talking about how great we are. When it comes to race and reconciliation, it’s where we are at our worse. Apologising and making things right? We don’t do that. ‘We’re right and you’re wrong, and we move forward.’ That’s how America works. 

“You can’t have reconciliation without truth. At some point, you have to admit what you did. At some point, you have to admit what you did was wrong, and that you will listen to the people who have been aggrieved. You can’t just move on and forget all about it. 

“For all of Roger Goodell’s statement and the dispensation he’s getting, the NFL increased the restrictions and the penalties to anyone who kneels. Are they rescinding those? Or are they simply talking? 

“And for all the talk about Roger Goodell saying the NFL didn’t listen, I’ve yet to hear an NFL owner say, ‘Colin Kapernick is welcome to come and play in the NFL.’ Until then, there’s no reconciliation as far as I’m concerned.” 

Listen to the full interview by subscribing here

Highlights of the series’ second run of a dozen episodes are available for free at this link. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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