Can NFL Owners Keep Up?

A social justice movement is sweeping the country—and professional sports. Is the NFL ready for whatever comes next?
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There was little warning that Aug. 26, 2020, would become a landmark date in sports. During the most disruptive year of our lifetimes, the world has been both standing still and changing rapidly. And so, three days after a police officer shot an unarmed Black man in Wisconsin named Jacob Blake seven times in the back, everything again changed all at once when the Milwaukee Bucks brought the sports world to a halt.

The players decided that the NBA playoffs would not, and should not, be played that night. To those in the U.S. with the privilege of not being affected by another case of excessive force by a police officer toward a Black person—the majority—the players were saying: Will you notice if we take away your privilege of watching us?

As other leagues—the WNBA, MLB, MLS—reckoned with player strikes, the biggest fish in U.S. sports, the NFL, had the luxury of being only in training camp. Certainly, the Lions had been out in front, starting a leaguewide trend in canceling practice, even before the NBA’s pause. But that was practice. What will happen when the NFL is finally in season?

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As the NBA season sat on a knife’s edge, with some teams considering going home, players met with team owners to hash out an agreement to promote social justice and civic engagement, including turning arenas into voting centers, to save the bubble. The last-minute deal required all the strength of the players’ and owners’ relationship—and the owners recognizing that, to continue profiting, they needed the players.

But what about the NFL, where the players are often treated as replaceable and their relationship with the league and its club owners has been repeatedly undercut by distrust stemming from everything from the past handling of concussions to the recent banishment of Colin Kaepernick? What happens if the NFL faces a crisis point this season? How far are team owners willing to go to support their players? More broadly, can the owners and the league keep up, not just with where players are headed, but with the country?

There have been some encouraging signs: When the Lions canceled practice and wheeled out a sign reading, “The World Can’t Go On,” the franchise supported the players, and their action was mirrored around the league. Both the Ravens and Texans have issued team statements unlike any we have seen from the NFL before, with specific calls to action, including: pushing elected officials to pass the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which aims to increase accountability for police brutality.

The league and the NFL Players Association this week agreed on new actions to take this season, such as closing all club facilities on Election Day so employees can vote; working with state officials to establish polling places at stadiums; and jointly supporting college education for the children of the victims of police brutality, whose names players can honor this season on their helmets.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie spoke optimistically of a “sea change” among his fellow team owners in taking on issues of racial injustice—and many of the recent actions agreed to are similar to steps the much-praised NBA has taken—but past and present actions invite an earned skepticism. While players are calling for club owners to use their political capital to spur lawmakers and elected officials to take actions for police and criminal justice reform, some of these owners have heavily donated to candidates or officials who oppose such changes. The NFL’s first Black team president was hired in 2020. And just last week, two days after a police officer paralyzed Blake, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was telling a Dallas-area radio station that he was looking to “implement” a compromise with players who want to demonstrate during the national anthem. Jones suggested kneeling only before the anthem, and standing during it, “to recognize what its symbol is to America,” again willfully disregarding the reasons behind the peaceful protest undertaken four years ago by Colin Kaepernick—who is still looking for work in the NFL.

Jones was not alone in muddying the message: Giants owner John Mara told reporters Thursday that, though he supports players’ rights, he prefers everyone stand for the anthem. At the very moment when other leagues were working toward navigating a new reality, two of the NFL’s most prominent owners had dropped the league back into the same old stew it’s been boiling in for years.

“The owners have had difficulty dealing with a much less complex situation,” says Harry Edwards, a University of California sociologist and civil rights activist, referring to the league’s fumbling of Kaepernick’s protest. Now they face “this confluence of pandemic, the greatest social justice movement in the history of the country, a cratering economy and the most consequential presidential election probably since 1860.”

Edwards continues, “I don't think that they are prepared politically, psychologically, in terms of their relationships with their locker rooms, to deal with this.”

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Jerry Jones, who kneeled with his players before, but not during, the anthem in 2017, said he hopes to reach a compromise with them this year.

Jerry Jones, who kneeled with his players before, but not during, the anthem in 2017, said he hopes to reach a compromise with them this year.

Aug. 26 was already a landmark moment for the NFL. In 2016, it was the date when Kaepernick’s quiet act of protest before a preseason game against the Packers first drew national attention. After the game, Kaepernick told NFL Media that he was sitting—and, later, kneeling—during the anthem to protest the oppression and persecution of Black people in America, weeks after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police on consecutive days.

In 2017, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers to explore his options around the league. It turned out there were none, for a QB who just four short years earlier had led his team to a Super Bowl appearance. In May 2018, with Kaepernick still unemployed, the NFL owners passed a new policy saying all players should stand and “show respect” for the flag and the playing of the anthem, stay in the locker room, or risk their team being fined.

At the time, the players’ union filed a grievance, arguing the policy was inconsistent with the CBA and infringed on players’ rights, and considered legal action. That summer, the sides reached a standstill agreement, which is still in place today, preventing the policy’s implementation and halting the grievance. This context is critical to the conversation ongoing today: It was only two years ago that NFL players entered the season at odds with the league and owners over what they saw not only as a blatant lack of understanding, but also a lack of voice in creating this policy.

“The safe place before was respect the flag, and that's why the NFL went there,” says Domonique Foxworth, a former NFL cornerback and a past president of the NFLPA.

But now the safe place has shifted—not by the NFL’s choice, but via pressure from both players and the outside world. The corporate world has moved accordingly: Nike signed Kaepernick to an endorsement deal, FedEx pressured the Washington football team to finally drop its racist name, and league megasponsors like Pepsi are putting out Black Lives Matter messaging.

“(Team owners) are very pragmatic when it comes to money,” Foxworth adds. “And it seems to me that they want to make the decision that hurts their money the least. Being perceived as anti-players in this moment would hurt them more than anything else.”

The key will be how many of the league’s owners—particularly the most prominent ones, like Jones, Mara and Robert Kraft—recognize that. And how far they are willing to go in choosing their players over a portion of fans or even the president. Foxworth points out that NBA players didn’t previously test the league’s willingness to enforce its decades-old policy requiring standing for the anthem, at a time when perhaps the outside money pointed toward the “respect the flag” stance. “And that might be in part because of the relationship [the league and owners] had with the players, the players didn't want to put them in that situation,” he says. This speaks to some of the fundamental differences between the leagues—even though the NBA has had its own complicated relationship with race—that cast a tall shadow on the NFL’s path forward.

David J. Leonard, a professor of American and comparative ethnic studies at Washington State who has written extensively about race in sports, points out that the NFL has long been clear that it is “centering whiteness,” from the way it sells patriotism, to hiring practices that have resulted in a dearth of people of color in leadership roles, to the historical whiteness of the QB position, to the disregard of Native voices in keeping for so long the Washington team name. Another example is Jones’s assertion that he knows exactly what the flag stands for: the America he sees.

With a few notable exceptions (i.e., Mark Cuban), NBA owners are far more anonymous than NFL owners, who often take prominent front-facing roles as shepherds of their franchise. This fits into the sense that the hierarchy and the shield are central to the NFL, with the players interchangeable, while the NBA has embraced and marketed its individuals.

“The under-discussed element of Colin Kaepernick's protests was that he made his humanity front and center, and also made clear that his existence wasn't tied to being in the NFL,” Leonard says. “His humanity and existence transcended the identity of quarterback, or 49er. Players demanding that their lives, their experiences and their pain be addressed is all forcing the league, but also fans, to reckon with that.”

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Essentially, it was the same thing the striking NBA players asked for: a reckoning with their humanity. But the NFL’s response to Kaepernick has been, as ever, to replace him. The issue of his unemployment was brought up directly in 2018 meetings between representatives from the players union, including executive director DeMaurice Smith and then-president Eric Winston, and commissioner Roger Goodell and club owners. The union’s message was multipronged and still holds today: Kaepernick needs a job, and players need to feel supported. One way to demonstrate support, they said at the time, was for club owners to use their influence to push governors, district attorneys and police chiefs on legislative and policy changes necessary to stop police brutality and racial profiling.

Some individual owners did follow through on this local outreach, though their sway has been more apparent in matters such as raising funding for stadiums. At a league level, the NFL says it has invested $70 million in social-justice initiatives since 2017; in the weeks after police killed George Floyd in Minnesota, the league committed an additional $250 million over 10 years, and Goodell filmed a video in which he encouraged players to speak out while saying that the league had been wrong in not listening to players sooner. Ultimately, though, how clubs proceed depends on the owners.

Last week, Troy Vincent, a former NFL cornerback and current top-level league executive, made an honest plea for all owners to use their leverage in the causes the players are fighting for, telling Keyshawn Johnson on ESPN, “Many are there, and I must say in full transparency, many are not, because they think it’s a disruption of the business.” A few days later, in this week’s meetings between the league and union, clubs and ownership did again make the commitment to facilitate conversations with local officials, like Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry did by connecting players with the Wisconsin attorney general and lieutenant governor.

And while the Ravens’ recent statement demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, Ky.) bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to the Senate floor, Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill has directly donated to McConnell and the Republican party of Kentucky, and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has committed more than $200,000 this year to supporting Republicans’ congressional campaigns. Seven owners contributed $1 million to the Inaugural Committee for President Donald Trump, who backed the police department responsible for Blake’s shooting during his visit to Kenosha, Wis. Jets owner Woody Johnson, appointed by Trump to be ambassador to the U.K., contributed $1 million in May to the pro-Trump America First Action Super PAC.

Edwards expects that many club owners will not choose to be front and center as the NFL grapples with its racial reckoning, and will hope they don’t face the situation of a players’ strike. But, he cautions, “We're just one heinous act of extrajudicial killing, or shooting in the case of Jacob Blake, away from a reaction coming.”

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The NBA has largely supported its players' protests, including kneeling during the anthem.

The NBA has largely supported its players' protests, including kneeling during the anthem.

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute in 1968 during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race, Edwards was leading a group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. He encouraged the iconic act, to call attention to racial inequality, but adds protests were actually the “fallback position.” Edwards had called for athletes to sit out the Summer Games, with the idea that a disruption demands the attention of all the stakeholders in the sports establishment.

“When you boycott, you're bringing everybody who has an interest in that event to attention,” Edwards says. “You're sending a message, saying, I don't care what your stake is in this, you’ve got to stop and consider that what's going on in this society, happening to real people in day-to-day life that we have seen on camera, is more important than playing this game. We want you to pay attention and get involved and bring your resources to bear in terms of stopping this madness. And what we're demanding is that this society stop killing us.”

He adds: “I hope that what athletes have done in terms of these boycott efforts is to change the focus of the traditions of social movements in this country. This is not a Black pain problem. This is a white, institutional, social and human relations problem that has to be resolved in the white community. And I think that many of the proposals coming forth are targeting those realities.”

No sports team or league can end the killing of Black Americans—but they can play a role in dismantling the structures that allow this problem to persist. Edwards points to the push to end or limit qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that makes it harder to hold police accountable when they use excessive force. This is part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Foxworth would like to see clubs and owners support H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study and develop a plan for reparations for Black people.

Kenneth Shropshire, the CEO of Global Sport Institute at Arizona State, who has consulted for the NFL and NFLPA over the last few decades, says that owners’ different levels of support are a product of how much work they have put in to escape the “billionaire isolation position.” He recalls a conversation several years ago with an NFL team owner about the now-retired “Redskins” team name. Shropshire was struck by how this owner of an opposing club vigorously defended the team name and cited the polls that Dan Snyder used as cover, while not acknowledging the negative impact of the mascot on Native communities. He concluded that their conversation might have been one of the only ones that owner had about the racism of the former team name.

Shropshire points out that the league has typically been reactive to social change, instead of embracing it. If players do come to the point of wanting to strike during the season, whether the owners have the credibility of having embraced the issues players care about could be decisive. “Think about the last couple seasons,” Shropshire says. “It was, are people going to kneel or not? The more the NFL can get away from just being defensive, and really doing affirmative programs, is what the key will be.”

The measures the NFL and NFLPA agreed to this week are a good start. But on the eve of the 2020 season, if the owners truly want to avoid the moral morass of the last four years, most important will be recognizing the humanity of the players who’ve made them so wealthy.

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