The movement became too big for the NFL to ignore. But there is nothing too big for the NFL to co-opt.
Protest has wracked the country, for entirely justifiable reasons. Protestors are sick of black people being avoidably shot and needlessly killed by cops. This protest takes many forms: peaceful marches, less peaceful reactions after police escalation, wildcat athlete strikes. All of these are threatening to a certain large and racist segment of the population, and not because of the manner of protest, but because of its aim.
Enter the NFL, the continent’s sporting behemoth, one of the country’s biggest and most profitable entertainment concerns. “Football is a microcosm for America,” NBC’s pregame package assured us. What that means is that black and white people watch it, conservatives and leftists. This is not nothing; there aren’t particularly many strains of American entertainment you can say this about. What this also means is that the NFL, and the broadcast partners paying literal billions of dollars for the right to air its games, do not want to anger half their audience. Even if that half is wrong, or being angered by facts, or just downright despicable.
And so, the league and NBC were faced with the challenge of not only talking about the protests and the huge roles played in this social movement by its own employees, because to ignore it would have been unthinkable, but talking about them in a way that did not fatally alienate anyone who thinks that these uppity millionaires playing a children’s game should just shut up and tackle.
And so we got multiple gauzy packages attempting to render palatable and heartwarming the act of protest, which by definition is neither. Stirring music swelled over slick-looking footage of multiracial coalitions marching together hand-in-hand—in one clip, even with a cop. There was no whiff of conflict. No video of militarily equipped police cracking heads, no strangling clouds of tear gas, no video of armed right-wing vigilantes trying to intimidate and hurt protestors. There was no hint that there was anything here that was brave, or hated. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be! But this isn’t a perfect world, it’s ours.
All of this led to some awkward displays and explanations of what, exactly, the players are so upset about. “It’s not about the flag,” Tony Dungy said (correctly), and “it’s not about black and white” (uhhhhh). Colin Kaepernick got a mention—remember that guy? Whatever happened to him, and why isn’t he in the NFL anymore? And the league, through its groundskeepers, declared its desire to end racism, though it did not declare it so loudly that you might notice it if you weren’t looking for it.
That’s the most NFL gesture imaginable: somehow both glib and feeble.
And what was this superficial foofaraw labeled by the league? “A moment of unity,” when it is most certainly not that, and is in fact closer to the opposite of that. Still, that is what protest has to be made to look like, as decided by the league’s and the network’s top brains: totally unthreatening.
It’s the early going, but that isn’t good enough for some players, who are choosing to express themselves outside the league’s carefully choreographed lovestravaganza. Protest should make people uncomfortable, or it isn’t protest. The entire Texans team stayed in its locker room for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A number of Chiefs players kneeled. The Miami Dolphins announced their intention to skip the anthem this Sunday, decrying’s the NFL’s “fluff and empty gestures.”
But none of that had yet happened, or was known by the fans in the stands when the Chiefs and Texans joined together for what the PA announcer awkwardly called “a moment of silence for equality.” (You know what he meant, but that’s the danger of deciding not to use the word protest to describe a protest.) It was as unthreatening and unobjectionable as the NFL could have dreamed. The players stood together, silently. And the fans…booed.
That confused poor, America-loving J.J. Watt:
“The booing was unfortunate during that moment—I don’t fully understand that, there was no flag involved, there was nothing involved in that other than two teams coming together to show unity.”
It was not particularly confusing to the rest of us, and it was no fluke: Fans had earlier booed a soft-focus video package on equality. It was also no surprise. Here were the players doing everything that racist fans claim they want: being peaceful, respectful, not accusing anyone of anything—shutting up and playing football!—and they booed. Because what doesn’t matter and has never mattered to those people is how people are protesting, only that they are. What’s being said scares them much more than how it’s being said.
The NFL chooses not to get that, and instead thinks it can walk a tightrope between insulting your intelligence and offending racists. It’s not possible. Not that this was in any doubt before, but Chiefs fans audibly put the lie to any notions of compromise when they booed a group of black men pleading, silently, not to be treated like shit.
When that pregame package said “football is a microcosm of America,” it might’ve been the only honest thing said all night.