Photo by The All-Nite Images
When Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police officers, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick responded immediately. Kaepernick wrote on Instagram, “This is what lynchings look like in 2016! Another murder in the streets because of the color of a man’s skin, at the hands of the people who they say will protect us. When will they be held accountable? Or did he fear for his life as he executed this man?”
When St. Paul’s Philando Castile was killed by police the following day and the aftermath of his shooting live-streamed on Facebook, 49ers running back Reggie Bush (who just signed with the Buffalo Bills) tweeted, “Seriously twenty-four hours later another black man shot and killed dead by another cop! They said the body cameras were steps in the right direction.”
These are only two examples—and there are many—of NFL players reacting with anger and disgust over police killings that have shaken the country this summer. These athletes amplified the voices of the thousands in the streets calling for some kind of justice. The question now, as the leaves begin to turn and NFL players transition from their vacation spots to the playing field, is what happens next?
For those with a superficial knowledge of how the NFL does business, the answer seems obvious. This is the NFL, also known as the “No Fun League.” Any expression by a player of individual personality—let alone politics—subjects him to warnings, fines, or even being blackballed from being able to make a living.
This is a league that threatened to fine quarterback Jake Plummer for wearing a memorial decal on his helmet in honor of friend and former teammate Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army Ranger. Surely, they will not abide players speaking out for Black Lives Matter or wearing slogans on their uniforms. Except for one thing: The league already abided all of this in 2014.
Even under the ham-handed, clumsy, hippo-ballerina stylings of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the league did not discipline players in 2014 for standing with the families of those killed by police. Despite having such a tin ear he sets off metal detectors, Roger Goodell understood that in a league that is 70 percent African American, he would be playing with fire if he cracked down on anyone who chose to express horror over those killings.
In 2016, however, the stakes are higher. The NFL is highly dependent on local police to provide security at games and help the league manage the public relations fallouts when one of their players runs afoul of the law. And it’s clear that cops are feeling restive and under attack. In July, off-duty officers providing security at a Women’s National Basketball Association game walked off their jobs when players took the court wearing T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter.”
In the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver has said he welcomes and even encourages players to use their platform and let their politics be known. In the NFL, with its paucity of black head coaches and absence of black owners, the divisions between upper management and the people we pay to watch run even deeper than in other sports leagues.
It’s a divide that Goodell, seen broadly as an intellectually thin figurehead and flak-catcher for NFL owners, has been unable to bridge. It is guaranteed, given the nature of policing in this country, that there will be more death. It is guaranteed that NFL players will have something to say about it. What is not guaranteed is how Goodell will choose to respond. This may be one of the more compelling and combustible storylines as the 2016 season prepares to kick off.
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.