Around 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday, at the corner of 51st Street and Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, Reverend Stephen Green stood at a podium on a raised stage, in front of a microphone, with about a dozen other social activists behind him. In front of him stood several hundred rally attendees, standing seven or eight deep, all the way down the city block.
“If you would just look up on the eighth floor,” Green said, gesturing up to the skyscraper looming above them, “the NFL is still meeting and watching us down here.”
Then Green launched into a passionate speech, getting louder and louder as he went, as if he wanted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to hear him all the way on the eighth floor.
“We have come today to assert to the NFL, that we are demanding that you enact a policy that will protect the freedom of expression of your players, to be able to speak about issues of social justice that matter to them. We’re demanding that they be safeguarded from humiliation, from ostracization and from exclusion. … We want to make sure that they continue to speak up for the lives of black and brown people in this country. We want to make sure that they kneel, and when we see them kneeling, we know they kneel for Trayvon Martin! When we see them kneel, we know they kneel for Michael Brown! We know, when we see them kneel, they kneel for Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland! We know when they kneel, they kneel for you and they kneel for me!”
Green, the president of The People’s Consortium for Human and Civil Rights, worked with about a dozen other social and political activist groups—including the NAACP, the Woman’s March and the Empowerment Movement—in organizing this rally on the sidewalk outside the NFL headquarters. They gathered here first to show support of Colin Kaepernick, at a time when it appears to some that the NFL is colluding to keep him out of the league, but also to send a message to Commissioner Goodell and the NFL that they want to enact change that will make it easier for players to speak their minds on social issues. They were calling this the “United We Stand” rally.
Green and his co-organizers tried to have this discussion with Goodell in a more formal manner. They sent a message to the league on Tuesday night, requesting a meeting with the commissioner during the day on Wednesday. Then the NFL countered, offering to schedule a meeting at a later date and include all of the social activist groups that had reached out to request a meeting with the commissioner. Green and his partners declined. They wanted to meet with Goodell on their own, and they wanted to meet now.
“We think we’re worth it to meet with,” Green said. “Instead, we presented our demands to the people.”
Indeed, over the course of the 90-minute rally, Green and several other speakers—local politicians, preachers, and activists—told the crowd what they wanted done. If they had been granted a meeting with Goodell, they would have made three “demands,” Green said:
1. That the NFL institute a policy to protect players’ rights to have freedom of speech, so they can kneel, raise a fist or express opinions on social issues, if they wish.
2. That the NFL establish a review board to, Green says, “examine issues of social injustice.” As Tamika Mallory, a social activist and co-organizer of the 2017 Women’s March, put it in her speech, “The NFL, just like the NYPD, cannot police itself. Any organization that is only being looked at from within is a failing organization. There must be a unit of people internally and externally that look at racial and cultural sensitivity issues within the NFL.”
3. And that the NFL develop some sort of program to “reinvest into the communities in which they serve, where there are high rates of unemployment, high rates of mass incarceration. To re-invest those funds into the community,” Green says.
The issue of protecting the players’ freedom of speech was also important to Derrick Johnson, the interim president of the NAACP, who also wrote a letter to Goodell requesting a meeting to discuss what was going on with Kaepernick. In a phone interview, Johnson said that he wanted to talk to Goodell “to make sure that Colin is not being penalized for speaking out on a very relevant social justice issue”—the issue of police brutality toward unarmed African Americans in recent years. Johnson pointed to how there had been a long history of athletes and entertainers speaking out on social justice issues and enacting change, going back to Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.
“We rely heavily on individuals with celebrity status to use their platform to promote social justice,” Johnson said. “It has been an important part of our democracy. It’s been an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. We don’t want to see the NFL suppress the voice of any player.”
At the rally, Green and his fellow organizers decided their best course of action, for now, was to try pressuring the NFL the same way the anti-Kaepernick people had: by threatening to not watch games. Several of the activists who spoke instructed the crowd to boycott the NFL until the league changed its ways. “I don’t care how long you’ve been watching football,” Mallory said at one point. “If they don’t stand for your children, turn the damn game off.”
The organizers also targeted Verizon, one of the NFL’s largest sponsors. When Linda Sarsour, another co-organizer of the 2017 Women’s March, took the stage, she read off a phone number to the crowd—the number, presumably, for a customer service liaison at the company—and instructed everyone to call. Sarsour also requested that people tweet at Verizon.
“Ask Verizon … are you going to stand with Kaepernick? Are you going to stand with black people? Brown people? We want Verizon to take a stand and tell us what side they’re on.” The goal, it seemed was to pressure Verizon into pulling its money out of advertising with the NFL. “They only speak one language,” Sarsour said to the crowd, referring to the NFL execs upstairs, “and the language is money.”
The rally organizers are still holding out hope that they can schedule a face-to-face meeting with Goodell, but it’s unclear whether the two sides will be able to agree to conditions of the meeting. The organizers say they’ve set a deadline for the meeting to take place by Sept. 7, the day the 2017 NFL season kicks off, which is just two weeks away. If they don’t meet with Goodell by then, Green says, “We will escalate our campaign through direct action targeted at the NFL and their sponsors.”