For most of the NFL’s lifespan, owners have enjoyed the kind of duality known only to high-ranking politicians of the same era who were free to plot, scheme and exist behind the scenes while maintaining a singular, public-facing persona that kept them in high regard. Essentially the Lion of the Senate, or the Papa Bear of professional football.
No matter your politics, the 2016 election changed the league’s landscape. Pressed by the rhetoric of new leadership, players brought their fight for racial and social equality to the mainstream, most noticeably by taking a knee during the national anthem, a movement started by former QB Colin Kaepernick. The president returned serve, bundling the thoughts and beliefs of his electoral base into a missile aimed at the otherwise peaceful protests. From there, everyone’s curtain was blown open. It didn’t just matter what you said, or how deftly you were able to avoid saying it. It was about action, not just movement.
Social justice initiatives supported by all 32 clubs, the NFL’s response to months of discussion and lobbying on behalf of the players, were never going to be the end of this, even if some teams used it as a bargaining chip to ensure that their players stood for the national anthem (and, by extension, stopped their offices from being flooded with angry calls, stopped their mail rooms from being bombarded with letters accusing them of unpatriotic behavior and their team Twitter mentions peppered with jersey-burning videos). There were always going to be players who kept pushing and studying and challenging, because that’s what happens when you realize the power of a platform and can feel the changes you’re able to enact. That’s what happens when there is an emotional decision being made on one side, and a business decision being made on another.
To call Kenny Stills anything but committed and open-minded is laughable. We ran a piece earlier this offseason on his tours through the South and how he’s had open discussions with a long-time mentor and Marine first sergeant about the implications of his actions and words. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he felt the need to call out his team’s owner, Stephen Ross, for what he felt was duplicitous behavior. In the minds of some people, it’s difficult to reconcile running a program aimed at “(empowering) the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations,” and running a political fundraiser for a person who, just recently, told minority congresswomen to “go back to where they came from.”
In a statement, Ross couched the fundraiser as the typical, active role he always takes in the democratic process, and said that he sees himself as a “outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability.” You can view his most recent large political donations here.
Amid the current state of play, owners have momentarily lost their longstanding ability to have their cake and eat it too, which may be one of the most significant shifts in sports over the past three years. It now raises an eyebrow when, say, you stand among your peers in suggesting the players stick to sports before using the team website to advocate for a controversial Supreme Court justice, or stump for that justice on a right-wing talk show. Or, when you directly suggest taking the politics out of football after having appeared on Fox News lauding one party over the other, or before appearing in ad campaigns in the run up to an election. As Pro Football Talk recently pointed out, it's especially counterintuitive as owners and players barrel into intense CBA negotiations which could lose the veneer of authenticity and friendliness awfully fast.
This feels like the heart of Stills’s criticism. Regardless of how you feel about player efforts over three years to raise awareness for issues that are of critical importance to them and their communities, there was no doubt that they put their well-being on the line to do it. Colin Kaepernick is still out of work. Eric Reid barely squeezed his way back into the NFL, and admittedly did not hit free agency again despite a positional renaissance out of fears that he might again be questioned on his beliefs and how he intends to express them.
There isn’t a corresponding backlash for owners outside of a small shift at the concession and merchandising tables, which allowed them to go back to what they were so good at in the first place: Building comfortable homesteads on both sides of the fence, all but guaranteeing a moral victory when the history books are printed.
You’d be right to say that this is how your boss acts, too. That this is how every person in charge of everything works. But what if you had the platform and leverage to call it out? Would you? Stills deserves credit for that.
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