The specter of Colin Kaepernick is haunting the NFL. Ever since the quarterback was blackballed for protesting police brutality, many fans and pundits sparred over the merits of his actions. Like our country, the league values structure, hierarchy, discipline, and strength in a military-like fashion. Like our country, the league’s fan base skews somewhat socially conservative, often siding with upper management and coaches over “rebellious” and “entitled” players . It’s only in the last few years that the league has shown signs of turning a new leaf… or so we thought. Last season the NFL released its Social Justice Initiative. The initiative included having a player-owner committee, with a strong focus on “reducing barriers to opportunity.”
League commissioner Rodger Goodell announced that the league plans to donate an extra $250 million over a 10-year period. The league even said starting next year they’re going to play the Black National Anthem before games for good measure. While it’s good that the NFL is giving back, I can’t help but be skeptical. One might say “they’re putting money where their mouth is, so what’s the problem?” I’m not against philanthropy per se, but I’m more concerned with what type of endgame these initiatives are striving towards. When a company like the NFL unveils these things, people are far too quick to pat them on the back. There are also many fans who use these measures to dismiss the legitimate outrage and anger people have towards the problems affecting our country today. In the eyes of that crowd, there’s no difference between grassroots activism and corporate influencers posting black squares on Instagram.
Now that is not to say there aren’t good faith actors in the league. Players like Saints safety Malcom Jenkins and ex-Seahawk Doug Baldwin have done a lot for their communities and have been very professional in how they represented themselves and the causes they support. However, that says more about those players and less about the owners that pay them. The league isn’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, they’re doing it because right now being “woke” is good for business. All the money donated to these charities at best hides their complicity in many of the social problems affecting this country. At worst it is a tax-write off that they can use to deflect criticism.
It also fails to address the skewed power dynamics in this country. A point well articulated by many pundits like Dominique Foxworth and Jalen Rose. Team owners on both sides of our narrow political spectrum donate to political causes that enrich them and screw over regular people. Ted York who partly owns the 49ers, donated $5,400 to Kamala Harris back in 2015. Harris, who was pushed by many as progressive, spent her time as a prosecutor advocating for punitive “tough on crime” policies. One of which was a truancy law that jailed parents for outstanding absences. According to a 2018 study done by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the San Francisco Metro Area has one of the biggest income disparities in the US. With the top 1% having on average $2.8 million compared to the bottom 99% having around $82,000. Living as a working parent might mean not enough having bus money for your kid. It might mean not being as hands-on with your kid’s education, due to working long hours to put food on the table. Instead of creating policies that criminalize poverty, why not create policies that alleviate that?
It is also worth asking why are there so few black head coaches in the league. How is it that an offensive wizard like Eric Bienemy rarely received any head coaching offers? Any other coach with his talent and resume would have NFL teams tripping over themselves to sign him. Minority representation on the coaching level isn’t high on the list when talking about social issues. But if the league is going to push this “progressive” image, they should at least act like it.
Cutting checks isn’t enough to solve social inequality. It would be wishful thinking to assume foundations with Tom Brady’s name slapped on them are real alternatives to substantive systemic reform. It’s time to stop pretending that’s the case.