Football is an incredible sport, but the NFL has been tougher to watch for me lately.
Despite growing up with a team as consistently disappointing as the Detroit Lions, I’ve always loved football. But the sport is tough to really enjoy these days. There’s the obvious issue of how the league handles players who have been accused of domestic assault: they waver between a veil of toughness to act like they care, and being passive for the sake of making money and winning games.You would think that they learned from the Ray Rice debacle, but the league just suspended kicker Josh Brown for only one game after he was arrested for domestic abuse. Whether the optics were accurate or not, it appeared that the NFL seemed more focused on holding Tom Brady accountable for deflated footballs than it did on protecting women.
The NFL has also shown poor regard for players’ health. There’s the whole CTE scandal, where the league refused to inform players about the permanent brain damage that came from repeated concussions. And there’s the poor regulation of painkiller drugs, which leads players into becoming dependent on them. The NFL does seem to be working on these things, but that still doesn’t take away the guilt of feeling like I’m watching athletes play a barbaric game, destroying their lives for my entertainment. As I have told friends, I wouldn’t say I was planning to boycott the NFL to pursue a cause or to make a statement; it’s just getting more uncomfortable to watch the game that I’ve always loved.
That said, Colin Kaepernick’s protest — and more importantly, his responses to reporters when he was asked about the cause — made me the happiest I’ve been with anything NFL-related in a long time. He used his platform to speak out against police brutality, on behalf of oppressed people. And even though he does have guaranteed money, he didn’t even have a roster spot guaranteed on the team if his protest received backlash. While some called him selfish, I thought Kaep was showing the type of leadership that we always demand of quarterbacks: he made a decision, he led by example and he was willing to deal with whatever the consequences were. It’s also gratifying to see his leadership blooming before our very eyes: he has dedicated the first $1 million of his salary this season to organizations that will combat the issues he’s passionate about, and he’s also donating the money from his skyrocketing jersey sales. While Kaepernick sounded well-versed during his interviews, he seems to be humble enough to put his money with people who are already doing the work, instead of buckling under insincere demands for him to fix all the issues if he cares so much. And surprisingly, the NFL stated that Kaep wasn’t breaking any rules.
It was even more gratifying to see other players and organizations be inspired to speak up as well. Kaepernick’s team, the San Francisco 49ers, have also dedicated to donating $1 million to Bay Area organizations that fight racial and systemic inequality. The Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs each had between one and four players defiantly raising a fist during the national anthem on opening Sunday. Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall has now lost two endorsements from his choice to kneel during the anthem. Four players on the Miami Dolphins knelt on one knee, supported them. (Yes, I’m intentionally leaving out the Seattle Seahawks’ indecisive arm-locking “demonstration of unity.”) All of these players have seen and heard the backlash Kaepernick has received in recent weeks, and they still felt compelled to speak out.
It would be great to see these protests last, or even grow, for the rest of the season: racism obviously isn’t ending in less than 17 weeks, and America needs every reminder it can get. But even if it just lasted one week, Kaepernick and the other NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem understand that a fundamental tool of protest is disruption: you can’t change people’s minds by tiptoeing around them. Making a statement during the top-rated television program every Sunday speaks wonders. Even if I don’t watch them perform between the lines, this is who I’ll be rooting for this season.