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Colin Kaepernick, Black Resistance and Institutionalized Racism in the NFL

Danielle Lavin-Loucks - Monday, May 28, 2018
Colin Kaepernick, Black Resistance & Institutionalized Racism in the NFL

By: Shaonta’ Allen

In August 2016 Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem of a National Football League (NFL) game as a means of protesting the ongoing issue of police brutality in Black communities. By doing so, he continued a long standing tradition of athlete activism (Kaufman 2008). This type of activism intentionally utilizes large professional sport platforms to draw attention to prominent social ills (Kaufman and Wolff 2010). Notable athlete activists include Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammed Ali and Olympic Track Stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith. After articulating that his actions were indeed in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and it’s disapproval of state sanctioned violence against unarmed Black people (Taylor 2016), Kaepernick and other NFL players continued to peacefully protest during the National Anthem throughout the remainder of the 2016 Football season. These protests appeared again in the 2017 season and increased when it became clear that Kaepernick would not get signed with a new team, mostly because of his previous kneeling. Approximately 70% of NFL players are Black, yet the coaching staff and franchise owners are almost 100% white. This racial divide has resulted in many scholars drawing comparisons between the NFL and slavery. Given the NFL’s most recent addition to the rule book, it’s not hard to see why.

On May 23rd 2018 the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that team owners had agreed to implement a new policy regarding anthem protests. Beginning with the 2018 season, all athletes will be required to stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room. Failure to do so will result in a fine. While NFL leadership claimed this was an attempt to stifle the false narratives that the NFL did not respect the flag nor the American troops who served and sacrificed their lives for our liberties here in America, many scholars and football fans alike saw this additional regulation as an attack on NFL players’ 1st amendment right to peacefully protest. Sociologically, this new rule can be viewed as institutionalized racism. 

The current President of the American Sociological Association, Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, argues that color-blind rhetoric obfuscates white people’s ability to conceptual the pervasiveness of race in the everyday lives of people of color. Within this racial climate white people have the privilege of choosing “not to see race” (Bonilla-Silva 2013). Unfortunately, for Black people in America, the negative implications of race and the various ways racism is embedded into social institutions such as the criminal justice system (Alexander and West 2012), neighborhoods and housing (Wilson 2012), the employment sector (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004; Pager 2009), the education system (Kozol 1992; Thomas 2017) and even sports (Leonard 2017) are not optional. When considering how this new NFL policy was established by a predominantly white ownership group to have disproportionately negative effects on the predominately Black NFL players, the inherent racism becomes clear. In the same way that historic redlining practices amongst housing lenders limited where Black people could live, we are seeing a red line being drawn within the NFL limiting where and how players can protest their racial oppression. The message is clear: the NFL loves Black athletes but hates Black resistance. This new rule implies that Black oppression is not profitable so therefore has no place on the football field. This expectation that Black athletes can and should shut off certain aspects of their Blackness so that others can be entertained “comfortably” is problematic and suppressive. This is actually a modern day example of what prominent social theorist Karl Marx referred to as alienation (Marx and Engels 1978). 

Social media has recently played a significant role in constructing discourses around social problems. Many sociologists and other academics used their Twitter platforms to call out the racist and capitalistic nature of this new NFL policy. Surgeon-Scientist Eugene Gu provided some additional context when tweeting: “The NFL banning its players from kneeling is a chilling attack against the First Amendment and a racist policy against the majority African-American players who want to peacefully protest the injustice they face in their daily lives” (@eugenegu). Dr. Crystal Fleming, a sociologist at Stony Brook University, encouraged football fans and viewers to continue to protest the NFL during the upcoming season when tweeting: “The NFL, as a business model, cannot survive without black bodies and black patronage. Players and fans alike absolutely have the power to collectively disrupt their bottom line. Let’s use it” (@alwaystheself). I also contributed to the conversation by tweeting: “I’m disgusted with the @NFL yet not surprised that they’ve found a new way to financially profit off the Black athletes they already exploit! 😡 Curious to see how the @Seahawks will respond to this blatant attack against their players right to peacefully protest #BoycottNFL” (@BlkSocWithQTNA). I intentionally mentioned my home team, the Seattle Seahawks, because other franchises such as the New Jersey Jets and the San Francisco 49s had already announced that they would not discipline any players who chose to protest but instead would pay all fines that were accrued. I remain curious to see if the Seahawks will follow suit. With a few months between now and the official kick-off of the 2018 football season, it will be interesting to see how teams and individual players respond to this new protocol. Many fans will base their decision of whether or not to support the NFL on these responses.  

The intersection of race, sports, and social movements is ripe for sociological inquiry. Particularly, a study could be conducted on the differences between how the NFL and the NBA govern their players’ responses to racial inequality. A discourse analysis of NFL players’ interviews or statements in response to this new policy would also be fascinating. New research on topics such as these are necessary because they capture the unique moment we are in where the working conditions for Black athletes who earn millions of dollars a year are comparable to the conditions of antebellum slavery and where fans are forced to choose between supporting their favorite players or boycotting the corrupt NFL at the expense of those players. We often claim to desire an equitable and just society. Analyzing how players, fans and other social institutions respond to incidents like this are extremely significant in illustrating whether we are truly headed in that direction or not. 

Alexander, Michelle and Cornel West. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” The American Economic Review 94(4):991–1013.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2013. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4 edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Kaufman, Peter. 2008. “Boos, Bans, and Other Backlash: The Consequences of Being an Activist Athlete.” Humanity & Society 32(3):215–37.

Kozol, Jonathan. 1992. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools By Jonathan Kozol. 7.4.1992 edition. Harper Perennial.

Leonard, David J. 2017. Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd Revised & enlarged edition. edited by R. C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Pager, Devah. 2009. Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Reprint edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books
Thomas, James M. 2017. “Diversity Regimes and Racial Inequality: A Case Study of Diversity University:” Social Currents.

Wilson, William Julius. 2012. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, Second Edition. Second edition. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

*Shaonta Allen is a 3rd year Doctoral Student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests include Race & Racism, Religion, Collective Behavior & Social Movements, and Pop-Culture & Sport

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