On one hand we have the president of the United States urging governors to “dominate” those protesting against the heartless, brutal killing of George Floyd, while saying absolutely nothing about holding to account officers such as Daniel Pantaleo (the killing of Eric Garner); Betty Jo Shelby (the killing of Terence Crutcher); Darren Wilson (the killing of Mike Brown); Blane Salamoni (the killing of Alton Sterling); and Jeronimo Yanez (Philando Castile).
On the other hand, we have seen an abundance of organizations – from McDonald’s to Netflix to the NBA – issuing statements about the terrorism that runs rampant through police departments across America in the wake of Floyd’s death, while proclaiming that black lives do in fact matter.
Which brings me to the NFL. In a statement posted to Twitter, America’s richest league called the death of Floyd – as well as two other African Americans, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – “tragic” before adding that: “We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society?”
Wait. “We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society”? Where was all this when Colin Kaepernick took a knee?
I asked Kaepernick’s close friend and former teammate Eric Reid why he and Kaepernick took a knee in my book We Matter: Athletes And Activism. This is what he told me.
“I just felt that people were losing their lives over traffic stops and nobody was being held accountable for that. The way things kept playing out was, you would have the initial report, they would say it was under investigation, and nothing would really happen,” he said. “All of these families would be forced to deal with another loss of life, and nothing seemed to be changing. So, since my personal beliefs were in line with [Kaepernick’s] on this subject, I wanted to show some solidarity and support for my teammate. He was getting a lot of backlash and I couldn’t just not support him when I felt the same way he did.”
And that backlash came directly from the NFL and its teams, who have whiteballed Kaepernick from the league since the 2016 season, when he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Kaepernick became an international symbol of resistance and non-violent protest. He embodied everything that the NFL now claims to represent.
Here’s another part of the NFL’s statement: “We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important walk to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.”
Who is advising the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell? Did no one tell him that this would not go over well? That this statement is dripping with hypocrisy? That neither Jay-Z nor any Inspire Change songs mask the sanctimoniousness of everything in the statement?
So what should Goodell have done? For a start there’s how the message was presented. Most organizations’ statements posted on Twitter are starting to sound a little manufactured, like they all have the same ghostwriter. Perhaps Goodell should have called a (socially distanced) press conference and said something along these lines:
“We have seen the errors of our ways in our handling of the Colin Kaepernick situation. We as the NFL want to reach out to him to make amends for caving into pressure from the White House and our conservative fanbase, who purposely twisted Colin’s message of peacefully protesting police brutality into something anti-police, anti-military, and anti-American. We know Colin was actually utilizing the example set by the great Dr Martin Luther King Jr [they love to bring Dr King into the discussion when they want to talk about non-violence, which ultimately waters down and twists his message as well. But I digress].
“We know that it is not anti-American to speak out on the injustices of police brutality. We would like to give Colin a real opportunity to play in the NFL, and not the sham of an opportunity that we created last year.
“We want to work with him and his Know Your Rights organization moving forward to bring about real change in our country because what happened to George Floyd cannot keep happening.”
Then Goodell can discuss how the league recognizes the power of its platform in communities and as a part of the fabric of American society etc. He doesn’t even have to throw in Black Lives Matter, like most companies have. The NFL would have actually gone above and beyond the prettily worded statements made by various companies because Goodell would have given actual details of steps he would make to improve the situation.
Of course, I know the statement I wrote for Goodell is far-fetched and wouldn’t happen in a million years. But it would take something that drastic to make amends for the whiteballing of Kaepernick. And it’s not just about one person, it’s about what Kaepernick’s exile represents: the suppression of NFL players’ voices out of a fear of being Kaepernick’d out of the league if they dare to use their platform to speak out.
Statements like the one from the NFL this week are just as hypocritical as Donald Trump describing men like the white supremacists who killed Heather Heyer in 2017 as “very fine people” while calling protestors at the death of George Floyd “thugs”.
They both reek of hypocrisy.
Etan Thomas played in the NBA from 2001 to 2011. He is a published poet, activist and motivational speaker