When we finally get to watch NFL football this fall, expect to see large numbers of players taking a knee during the national anthem. The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many other incidents of overt police brutality and racist hostility directed at people of color have galvanized the NFL players like never before.
In the recent past, the protest was spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid and a handful of other players who continued to kneel during the pregame rendition of the national anthem. Kaepernick has been out of the league for four years, and the media attention on the actions of Reid and others largely faded to oblivion in the mass consciousness. Few white players ever joined in their silent protests.
This time is different. More and more, white players are rallying with their black teammates and supporting the fight against racial inequity and social injustice. Prominent ones, too. Texans superstar J.J. Watt, a player noted for his fervent support of the military, clapped back hard at a fan on Twitter who suggested that he knew Watt wouldn’t kneel with his teammates. Baker Mayfield also proudly said he was going to kneel in support with his teammates and didn’t care if it costs him fans.
One of the more emotional examples of how the mindset of white players is being impacted came from Lions center Frank Ragnow. He offered an honest, candid assessment of how the words of his black teammates have impacted his thinking.
“I feel like some white people get defensive when people say ‘white privilege,'” Ragnow said in a Zoom press conference with Lions reporters. “White privilege doesn’t mean you’ve had a privileged life. It doesn’t mean you’ve had no trouble, no problems, no adversity. It just means your skin color hasn’t caused that problem. And what I’ve been able to learn from a bunch of very smart people, a bunch of people who are being impacted by this, is that I just need to listen.”
He was impacted by teammate Justin Coleman, a high school teammate and good friend of Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. As more players are touched, as more publicity shines the spotlight on the cockroaches that are the racist murderers, it’s a lot easier for more white players to relate, to empathize, to see and hear the reality that so many black teammates have personally dealt with.
Ragnow’s evolution is a notable one. He’s a native of the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, ground zero in the protest movement. Ragnow went to college at Arkansas, the deep South. He’s seen both sides of the coin and he chose the side with his teammates. His willingness to admit he needed to change how he thinks is an important step.
It’s not an easy decision for these white players. The backlash against the burgeoning movement is virulent, powerful and often threatening. On the Browns Wire (I’m the managing editor) Facebook post where I wrote about Mayfield’s decision, I’ve already edited out--after documenting for FB admins--seven separate death threats to Mayfield...and one directed at me for simply reporting what Mayfield said. It took less than 12 hours to get that volume of recalcitrant hate.
The NFL itself cannot quite make the leap with so many of its own players. Commissioner Roger Goodell has tried. I believe Goodell’s heart is earnest and in the right place, but reconciling the man who represents the owners who quite deliberately blackballed Kaepernick and the meaningful-but-tardy efforts to support the players is a step many simply aren’t ready or willing to take. I’m in that group, too.
The NFL’s problem is that many owners will have a problem with the protest movement. Alienating a significant portion of the paying fan base will not be an easy or popular stance for owners. I strongly suspect we’ll see the end of the pregame national anthem as owners seek to throw a bone to those who don’t understand--or care--that the protest isn’t about the flag or the anthem. Those customers matter too to the NFL, after all. And in these unusual pandemic times and inflamed partisan rhetoric dominating the airwaves, customer dollars and advertising dollars matter more than normal.
I won’t lie. It does bother me a little to see kneeling during the national anthem. But it doesn’t bother me even one iota as much as it does to see the evil ramifications of white racists and bad cops. Nobody deserves to die for trying to pass a fake $20, or falling asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru, or simply jogging. If the American flag stands for pride in those crimes against humanity, I won’t stand for it either.