NFL's effort to embrace social justice still ignores the person who pushed for the movement, Colin Kaepernick

The NFL-financed Players Coalition has created real change. (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
The NFL-financed Players Coalition has created real change. (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

This is about something positive coming out of a negative, about being angry about one injustice but heartened that perhaps others are being remedied. This is about the NFL’s sudden embrace of social justice and the league’s latest efforts to bring attention to issues like police brutality and inequality contrasted with the league’s uneasy relationship with Colin Kaepernick.

This is going to require me to do something I’m generally loathe to do: give the NFL credit for doing something well. It will also require an examination of the NFL doing a good thing while ignoring Kaepernick, who started a movement in the NFL, still doesn't have a job.

Let’s dig in.

‘The color of my skin can be perceived as a weapon’

On Wednesday, the NFL unveiled a public service announcement on its Twitter feed, an emotional 2-minute video featuring the family of Botham Jean, the black man who was killed by off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in his own apartment in 2018.

After his mother and older sister talk about Botham’s tremendous, warm spirit, his father says, “I just can’t do without him being here ... Life is not sweet anymore.”

“What I hope to see happen is that our black boys are not seen as a threat,” his mother Allison Jean says.

“The color of my skin can be perceived as a weapon, and it’s not,” Allisa Findley, his sister, says.

The video will air during the Super Bowl and is the latest in the #InspireChange initiative, which aims to “create positive change in communities across America,” according to the league’s website. The Jean PSA highlights a case of racial injustice and in its own way asks viewers to understand that racism exists and can lead to death for some.

There was another PSA aired during the conference championship games last weekend that showed retired receiver Anquan Boldin speaking about his cousin, musician Corey Jones, who was killed by a plainclothes officer in October 2015 as he sat in his broken down vehicle on the side of a Florida highway.

During his trial last year, the officer Nouman Raja was found to have lied several times, and the presence of an audio recording of the interaction with Jones showed that Raja was not in danger as he claimed. Raja was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The pluses and minuses

Both PSAs are powerful. The Jean spot in particular addresses race head-on, a conversation many don’t like to have. That it’s the NFL pushing this conversation is stunning.

The Jean video was produced by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and the NFL, part of the partnership that was announced last summer between the rap icon and the league.

I’ve had a hard time with both the Jay-Z partnership, the creation of the Players Coalition and the nearly $90 million team owners are giving the group. It’s a struggle because team owners basically threw money at a problem – in this case players kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem to bring attention to issues like extrajudicial killings of citizens by police and racial and economic injustice – to make it go away.

While it’s frustrating that for a small sum (to them, not the rest of us) of around $3 million each, owners could make an action many of them disagreed with go away. Awarded grants can be transformative for grassroots organizations that will benefit from the money, which is distributed by the coalition.

Players are pushing for tangible change with that financing. In Massachusetts, New England Patriots Devin and Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon and Matthew Slater put their names and their time behind two pieces of legislation that have passed in the state: one, called the Student Opportunity Act, provides increased education funding to low-income communities, and another that raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12.

They’re not the only players who have done that kind of work and seen results.

It’s similar with Jay-Z’s involvement. In a 2017 meeting of NFL team owners to discuss player protests, the Buffalo Bills’ Terry Pegula suggested that the league needed a celebrity spokesman, preferably a black spokesman.

Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, have together and separately done incredible things, donating money and sometimes their names to numerous causes, often without fanfare. So for someone who has been a fan for years, it was discouraging to see that he’d let the league use him as a shield, to enable the NFL to point to him and effectively say, “Hey, Jay-Z thinks we’re OK, how bad can we be?”

These PSAs will hopefully create conversation — positive if uncomfortable conversation — which isn’t a bad thing. For far too long, black men especially have been seen as a threat simply for their skin, as Botham Jean’s mother noted, assumed to be up to no good if there are a small group of them gathered in front of a home, assumed to be thugs if they’re wearing sweats, assumed to be menacing for just being.

Looking at another human and instantly assuming the worst is no way for any of us to be, and if just a small percentage of people who see these PSAs ask themselves those difficult questions (“Do I do that? Why do I do that?”) or call out that type of bias when we see it, we can start to foster change and see each other in a better light.

‘This is bigger than football’

Here’s where my frustration and anger persists: the NFL is doing all of this while ignoring the very person who sparked its sudden push for change.

Yes, Kaepernick.

When Kaepernick sat and then kneeled during the national anthem beginning in the 2016 preseason, he clearly explained why he’d taken that action.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media’s Steve Wyche. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

He made the decision after seeing the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on back-to-back nights in July 2016, Sterling in Louisiana and Castile in Minnesota. Both were black men killed by police, their deaths caught on video and broadcast to the world.

Kaepernick played 12 games during the 2016 season, but after it he was released by the San Francisco 49ers, asking for his release after the Niners made it clear they wouldn’t be bringing him back for 2017.

We can discuss the way some fellow Americans treated Kaepernick another day, the racist invective and the death threats. And it saddens me that there was a split between Kaepernick, best friend Eric Reid and other members of the coalition, notably the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins. But the NFL turned its back on Kaepernick. The NFL, where teams are quick to pay a quarterback with even a modicum of success and a pulse, turned its back on a quarterback with a 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2016, who’d passed and rushed the 49ers to deep playoff runs just a couple of years earlier.

All because he did something perfectly legal, a First Amendment-protected action that got twisted to the point of being unrecognizable by those who sought to vilify him and more importantly, silence him. I know in my bones that had Kaepernick’s reason for kneeling been to bring attention to veterans homelessness or animal cruelty, he’d still be in the NFL.

It’s great that the NFL is running PSAs about race and the Players Coalition gets to pledge money to groups fighting for concepts like elimination of cash bail and inequalities in public education and job training programs. It is great.

But it will never be lost on some of us that all of this came about thanks to Kaepernick, who has been banished by the very league that now wants our kudos.

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