Business of Football: Can NFL attitude on race change? - Sports Illustrated

The Issues Colin Kaepernick Protested Against Remain, But Has the NFL's Attitude Changed?

We've seen PR statements, mea culpas and solidarity. But has this offseason really been a tipping point for the NFL?
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The mere mention of race in the country sets off stressors. One might have thought the subject would’ve become less polarizing than in decades past, yet here we are. The killing of George Floyd was a matchstick thrown in an American tinderbox waiting to take flame. And in the midst of a pandemic that has taken 110,000 American lives and 40 million jobs and counting in its wake, the country is in crisis. And sports, as it always does, has found its relevance to the national outpouring of emotion, even with no games being played. Against this backdrop, I thought I would share some personal thoughts and perspective on where the NFL stands.

Growing up

I grew up in Washington, D.C., where black people were the clear majority in terms of population. Indeed, on several occasions I found myself the only white person around. As a teenager, I would take my basketball to a park to join pickup games. As a rare white person who was also the shortest player available, I would patiently wait until a team had to pick me, as there was no one else left to pick. I often think about what may have been my finest moment on that basketball court. I got the ball (with no one guarding me of course), drove through traffic and made a nifty reverse layup over outstretched arms. No one said a word until the alpha player said a phrase I’ll never forget: “Alright, Shorty can ride.” I beamed.

I later played on a Boys Club basketball team where I was not only the sole white player on the team, but one of three white players in the league.

Every summer growing up I would work for my father, a home builder, in the construction pit, a lone white worker helping laborers, painters, bricklayers, etc. of color with whatever they needed. I had to answer the daily question of “BJ [Boss Junior], why are you out here with us and not in some swimming pool somewhere?” After a while, they accepted me, and I learned a lot those summers; a lot.

I write this not to say that I am “woke,” but rather as a personal account that being around black people early in life—and at times being the only white person around—gave me some comfort later in life, certainly in my professional life, both representing and being in a front office in the business of football, in a league made up of predominantly black athletes.

Growing up I just assumed everywhere was full of black people, as Washington, D.C., was. However, when I joined the Packers, boy, did I find out differently.

A new home in Green Bay

Culture shock dominated my first few years in Green Bay, a place as homogenous (white) as any I have ever seen, before or since. Although I didn't see overt discrimination or racism in the traditional sense of those words, I did find a surprising (to me) level of ignorance about other races and religions. I remember one time I mentioned to a group of coworkers that I was going to attend a bar mitzvah, and they looked at me like I said I was going to Mars.

Fridays were haircut days for players and staff. I hired two barbers: one to cut the black guys’ hair—he would travel two hours from Milwaukee—and one to cut the white guys’ hair. One Friday our barber from Milwaukee failed to show up, and our line of our guys waiting to see him started heading off in disappointment. Seeing this, our other barber said to me, in front of everyone, “You know, I can cut colored peoples’ hair.” The guys shot her a look; I took her aside and said she could not say that. She replied: “That is what we always say; they don’t like that word?” She was ignorant; she simply did not know.

Trying to recruit black players to Green Bay could be challenging, and I got this question often: “Andrew, are there any black people up there besides the players?”

Green Bay wraps itself around its sports team like no other place I have seen, but it is certainly not diverse. Part of the reason I left is I felt my sons needed to experience diversity.

Not the time for PR

One common byproduct of a time like this is that everyone—myself included—feels a need to weigh in.

I realize I am more immune to the spin than most, but I roll my eyes at statements clearly crafted by public relations departments with nebulous references to concepts like diversity and equality. It is even hard to separate the statements, as PR people tend to use the same playbook, and most don’t really say anything. I’ve stopped reading them. Now is not the time for check-the-box statements (as some do with what I call the “drive-by RIPs”). What about “harder” statements that denounce police brutality? What about actions beyond statements or even donations? What about statements respecting and tolerating, if not encouraging, players to peacefully protest without team or league consequences?

Commissioner Goodell’s statement released on Friday night did say he “supports” peaceful protest, but the real question is how it will play with Goodell’s bosses, the team owners. This is the group that previously had players “toe the line” during the national anthem, with one member speaking of “inmates running the prison,” and which includes multiple friends and financial supporters of the tweeter in chief.

And this is the group that—with roughly 125 quarterbacks on NFL rosters right now—could not and cannot find a roster spot for the NFL’s most famous peaceful protester.

Kaepernick redux

It has been almost four years since Colin Kaepernick specifically declared the reason for his protest was police brutality and unequal treatment of black people. It was never about the flag, the anthem or the military, yet the rhetoric around his protest conflated those issue over and over again.

I admit to being complicit here in media appearances. When ESPN producers would title segments on the topic “Anthem Protests,” I expressed that they should be titled differently, but I would always give in. From a producer’s view, content about the anthem “sold” better than content about police brutality and racial inequality.

Kaepernick, who hasn’t taken an NFL snap in three years, has been seen as a radioactive mix of politics and sports, something owners perceive as bad for business. Even Goodell, in his well-received video this week, never mentioned him by name.

The ultimate irony here is that the police practices Kaepernick was criticizing four years ago are the reason tens of thousands worldwide are now engaging in largely peaceful protest. They are the same views that the commissioner and some owners that shunned him are now espousing.

Live and learn.

Going forward

We live in a warp speed Twitter world, where even the biggest news eventually fades into the background, replaced by whatever is new and next (we aren’t hearing as much about COVID-19 these days). Time will tell, but this feels different.

In talking to both players and team executives over the past week, one thing has struck me: an unanticipated appreciation for teammates and coaches and a welcome male bonding that has been going on at a lot of levels. There have been mea culpas (see: Brees, Drew) and exceedingly open and honest sharing by players of personal encounters with racism. While these meetings would probably be happening in-person in a “normal” offseason, I have heard from a couple different players—black and white—that the distance through Zoom has allowed for more heartfelt and heart-wrenching stories; a true silver lining of this mostly virtual offseason.

Players are now emboldened to probe owners’ true views on racism, to demand answers on the non-hiring (they would say “blackballing”) of Kaepernick, to scrutinize ties to the current administration and to see which side their owner picks in the weeks and months ahead.

This is obviously an NFL offseason no one will ever forget, and this is a blessing coming out of it.

MLB business in spotlight over health and safety

Finally, a business of sports note beyond the issue of race and the NFL.

Major League Baseball owners and players (through their union, the MLBPA), are presently locked in a battle to set financial terms for their truncated season, if there is to be one. Players claim that the March agreement assured them of prorated salaries; owners claim that would be true only if fans were able to attend games. I am a lawyer and have read the language; it can be interpreted both ways. Now owners have a number in mind for player costs this season and are trying to implement it through a de facto revenue sharing plan and salary cap. They will play more games in this fashion or play fewer games with proration. As of this writing, both sides sit deadlocked, arms crossed and not talking, blaming the other side.

Here is the upshot: If there is no baseball in 2020, which is a real possibility, it will NOT be due to health and safety concerns stemming from the pandemic. Let that sink in. It will be about what it is always about in the business of sports: follow the money.

And as I have been saying for weeks—and now others seem to be following my lead—this is a harbinger of things to come between the NFL and the NFLPA. It will not be as dramatic, as MLB is negotiating a shortened season without fans, while the NFL will be negotiating a full season with an undetermined amount of diminished revenues. But the conversation is coming, mark my words. The owners will declare some level of hardship from the loss of gate receipts and game day revenues, and will want the players to share their pain.

Baseball is presenting us a preview of a battle coming to the business of football soon.

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