Exactly one year ago today, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem in a silent protest against police brutality and the inadequate response by police departments around the country to the demand for more accountability. The NFL never really forgave him for the controversy it ignited; after opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the season, he hasn’t been picked up by another team. While his 55.2 QB rating puts him in the bottom third of starters last season, it’s still better than Ryan Tannenhill (MIA), Cam Newton (CAR) and Eli Manning (NYG), all of whom are still members of their respective teams.
Kaepernick has been looked at by a few teams, and the closest he’s come to being signed is extensive interviewing from the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens. Both teams passed, ultimately, and it’s widely believed that owners have effectively blackballed him from the league. These are the same owners who have allowed players who committed domestic abuse, aggravated assault, attempted murder, DUI, animal abuse and a lot more into their league. All kinds of this anti-social and illegal behavior is acceptable, but a legal protest against institutional racism is not.
Meanwhile, the link between playing professional football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been built steadily over a decade — the latest study has found that evidence of CTE was present in 99% of the brains of former NFL players they had access to. While this doesn’t say that *every* professional football player will get CTE from playing the game, it does establish a very clear link between the game and this devastating neuro-degenerative disease.
Did you know that players in the NFL are overwhelmingly black? 70 percent of total players in the league are black, with four positions in particular almost entirely populated by black athletes (cornerback, wide receiver, running back and defensive end all above 80% in 2014). Statistics for the 2012-2013 seasons on concussions reveal that these positions had the highest-reported incidents during that time. Meanwhile, there is not a single black American owner in all of the NFL.
This is a sports league where black bodies are routinely sacrificed for the game. Every week, a mostly white audience (77% of viewers) cheer for a team that is mostly black (70% of players) but owned nearly entirely by white people (only the owner for the Jacksonville Jaguars is a person of color). The average NFL career lasts a little less than three years, during which time a major injury is all but certain; afterwards, they face a life of physical disability, directionlessness, and unpreparedness for life after football. After the fun is over, these players often go broke. The viewership, however, moves on to cheer for the latest body to move the ball down the field without a second thought.
The toll of the game has weighed on me for a while, but the reaction to Kaepernick’s protest both from around the league and among people who have never watched a game put things into perspective for me. The NFL, for all its talk about the good it brings the communities surrounding their teams, doesn’t do right by its players. By extension, it doesn’t do right by the black community. Black people take most of the risk for the least reward — we dominate the injury-prone positions on the field but are nearly absent from the coaching staff, front office and owner’s boxes. The league’s sluggish response to the strong evidence about the damage being done for the sake of the game is bad enough, but blacklisting a player for drawing attention to another facet of this institutionalized racism is inexcusable.
It’s for this reason that I simply cannot participate in the culture of the NFL any more. My silence and engagement make me complicit to the destruction of my brothers playing the game, and I can’t allow that. It’s not right what the league is doing to black athletes, and it’s simply immoral what the owners are doing to Kaepernick for exercising his legal, constitutional right to non-violent protest. I won’t be a part of it.
This is not a judgement on anyone who chooses to watch or attend NFL games, buy NFL products, play fantasy football, or root for their favorite team. We each have our own uncrossable lines, and our reasons for why some things carry more weight than others. However, I invite you to take a long, hard look at the league and ask yourself whether or not it’s something you’re proud of. If it isn’t, what are you going to do about that?