What should NFL players be grateful for, and how should they express their appreciation?
I’m asking for Colin Kaepernick, Brandon Marshall, Arian Foster, Malcolm Jenkins and others who have chosen to protest racial oppression during the national anthem.
And I’m also asking for Marshawn Lynch, the retired Seahawks running back who, just two seasons ago, was denigrated for not talking to reporters. The criticism centered on Lynch’s salary. Look how much he’s being paid, critics and pundits said, can’t he give us something?
Here is CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel from that January: “Lynch is in the second year of a four-year, $31-million contract in which $17 million was guaranteed... And in return, the NFL asks its players to occasionally step outside their cocoon of football for short periods of time, answering questions from the media.”
And here is the Buffalo News’ Jerry Sullivan that March: “[Lynch] has said he shouldn’t be ‘forced’ into it. He’s making almost $8 million a year to play football. There are certain sacrifices…
“It shouldn’t be that hard to give a few stock answers to football questions now and then.”
And now Kaepernick has been hit with virtually the same criticism for the opposite reason, for stepping out of his football cocoon. He makes too much money, critics and pundits say, to have such a negative opinion about race relations in the United States.
Here’s Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle: “It must be too deep, complex and multilayered for Kaepernick to comprehend the fact that the only reason he’s allowed to be a lifetime mega-millionaire with an 88.4 career passer rating, continually say stupid things and freely express his inherent and unalienable rights, is because of the flag and country he proclaims to hate.”
Writes Clay Travis at Fox Sports: “Colin Kaepernick received a free college education based on his football talents and he’s currently being paid over $19 million this year. Last year he made over $20 million. If that’s governmental oppression, sign me up.”
What we have learned from Marshawn Lynch and Colin Kaepernick is that black athletes walk a tightrope between saying too little and too much—and that one of the most popular ways to shame them into compliance, to keep them in a paradigm not their own—is envy. Prominent media outlets and personalities will always be ready to tell black athletes that everyday Joes are envious of the riches they’ve been afforded for playing a game. Don’t rail against a system, critics and pundits will say, that rewards you so handsomely for your raw talents.
The true condescension—the most degrading talking point which often goes unchallenged—is the notion that football players should consider themselves lucky to be in the NFL, as if hard work had nothing to do with reaching this level and earning their platform to speak out on social issues. It’s a prejudicial notion applied predominantly to black men; the bias is evident in the language of media scouting reports on draft prospects, which often ascribes phrases like “raw talent” to African Americans and “work ethic” to whites.
People only want black athletes to play the game and then talk about the game. Remember what Sullivan wrote about Lynch: “It shouldn’t be that hard to give a few stock answers to football questions now and then.”
Jaguars defensive end Jared Odrick wrote about this for The MMQB last week. “As an NFL player,” he said, “I’ve asked myself on multiple occasions, Do I want to speak the truth or do I want to make money? ... I can do a franchise-friendly interview in my sleep, but when we step outside the bounds of our third-down efficiency, we are vilified and told to keep quiet.”
Make a quiet and meaningless contribution to the daily sports dialogue, and you may just earn a few endorsement checks. Stray from that, in either direction, and you’ll be told that what you have today was not earned but gifted by God and the righteous billionaires who toss charity the way of poor young black men.
I, for one, don’t want stock answers.
If a player doesn’t want to interact with media throngs because he feels his words will be misconstrued, or he plans to monetize his perceived orneriness, or simply because he’s a jackass, I applaud his rebellion. And if a player is willing to step outside the bounds of the sport and stand for a larger cause, I will applaud him too, whether or not I agree with his methods and his message.
I’d rather be forced to hear something I don’t agree with—to be challenged by someone else’s worldview—than listen to another stock answer that serves no purpose.
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