The NFL Chooses Its Players

Earlier this week, a colleague of mine wrote a piece on the breaking news that the NFLPA was joining the Alliance for Criminal Justice Reform after the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict. You should pause now and go read it if you haven’t. This kind of thing requires an in-depth look- and that includes both perspectives.

This comes after a years-long struggle in which the NFL didn’t really know what to do in these situations. Colin Kaepernick made waves when he elected to kneel in protest of police brutality- the first real mixing of social issues and sports in a good while. That forced the NFL’s hand- or it should have.

Rather than make any sort of statement, the NFL took a sort of hands-off approach when that happened in 2016. No statements, no support, no condemnation, nothing.

Sure, the teams and owners made their decision known when they effectively blackballed Kaepernick from the league (even now he hasn’t been signed or discussed with). That can be chalked up to an occupational hazard, though, before being considered a statement or choice from the league.

The Fallout

Since that happened, the league has been caught in a game of tug of war. Fans (at least the more vocal ones) reacted with pure vitriol. Others more quietly supported the decision. Some famous people loved it- others didn’t. Most notably, then-President Trump waged war on the NFL with several tweets vilifying Kaepernick and his counterparts who joined his protest.

Trump even called for a boycott of the NFL- something many of his supporters followed through on or at least said on Facebook that they were going to. Then-Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a Colts game when someone knelt during the anthem. It was a high-profile war that the NFL found itself in the middle of without ever willingly entering the fray. It seemed that the fans were on one side and the players were on the other.

That is one good point made among many in the article that I will again implore you to check out before going any further. Fans aren’t happy with the way sports are going- as evidenced by the rating dip we’re seeing across the board. It happened in the NBA, it’s been happening in the MLB, and it will possibly catch up to the NFL soon, too.

The counterpoint to that is that players make up the league(s), not fans. Yes, fans drive revenue and ultimately do have an impact on the league, but players are the league. With no players, there is no league. With worse players, there is no interest. The league needs these players because they’re the best at what they do.

In the NFL, that means that over 70% of their player pool is a person of color (as of 2019). For the NBA, that number is 74.2 for just Black people (as of 2020). The fact that these players want to stand up for and take action against things that hurt their people should not be a surprise. In fact, it would be surprising if they didn’t.

Mike Thomas, Bryndon Minter, and Black Lives Matter

For a more anecdotal look at this, you need to look no further than the relatively infamous “Black Lives Matter” video of Roger Goodell from last year. In it, Goodell states that without black players, there is no NFL, reiterating my point from earlier. The video, however, is a response to another video.

Bryndon Minter, an NFL social media staffer, reached out to New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas had notably been vocal about kneeling and the injustices facing Black Americans. Thomas and Minter put together a video featuring Thomas, Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Washington Football Team edge defender Chase Young, and more NFL stars.

In the video, these players, all of which are Black, beg the NFL to listen to them. Goodell, and the league, as a result, obliged, issuing the aforementioned apology video affirming the players and their right to protest. It took several years, but the NFL finally figured out which side it was on.

That should come as a surprise to no one. The league needed to choose who they stand with- as the other leagues have done. The players or the fans, that’s the choice that has faced other leagues. They’ve chosen their players.

Now, pitting this as fans vs. players issue is reductive. It’s not that simple. And it’s not entirely accurate, either. It does seem like a lot of fans are displeased with seeing athletes kneel, or seeing Black Lives Matter plastered on NBA sidelines and the back of jerseys and helmets. That doesn’t seem to quite be the case. Yes, they’re louder and more vocal because they’re displeased. That doesn’t make them the majority.

Bleacher Report reports that, in June of 2020, the majority of Americans think it’s okay for players to kneel. Statista reports an even higher percent think it’s okay. The Washington Post polled Americans at a higher approval rating for the protests. There’s no data on exactly how football fans as a whole feel, but there is a way we can break this down.

Statista reports that most NFL team fanbases are more liberal than conservative. In fact, the most conservative fanbase goes to the Tennessee Titans (I live in Tennessee and believe this). 36% of Titans fans are conservative. Now the chart does include independent, but as far as right or left, that’s the highest percentage of conservative fans in a fanbase across all NFL teams.

In the previously linked Statista report about how many people consider it ok to kneel, we see that a vast majority of Democrats (typically liberal) think it is, while a huge percentage of Republicans do not. So, looking at all those things, it’s fair to say that maybe the majority of NFL fans don’t disagree with kneeling- just the most vocal ones.

If that’s the case, then it makes even more sense as to why the NFL made its decision to stand with the players rather than the louder, angrier fans. You can absolutely make the case that the angry, woke mob influenced the NFL, but if you’re going to consider one side an angry mob, I think it’s only fair to consider the other side- the side that has burned jerseys boycotted, and commented under every related Facebook post- a mob of sorts, as well.

It’s like the devil and the angel on the shoulder, only there seems to be no angel in this scenario. So, the NFL went with what mattered most to them- their players. Like Goodell said, without them, there is no league. He chose, and the league chose as well, to honor them before any fans.

Now again, if you haven’t read the other side, I implore you to do so. I do not want this article to end up in an echo chamber and I’m sure my colleague doesn’t either. To make more educated decisions and to come to a better understanding of our world, it is imperative to consider the other side. So, that’s what we’ve done.

These articles are intended to be juxtaposed to one another to give you, the reader, the opportunity to see things from all angles. Ignoring one side wouldn’t be doing this issue justice. And that’s what it’s all about.