Recently, I have commented on MLB and the NBA; so, let me spend some time on the NFL this morning. MLB had their “training camp” interrupted and their Opening Day sacrificed to COVID-19; those folks took that opportunity to get into a pissing contest with the union representing their players that did little more than piss off the fans of baseball. Meanwhile, the NBA worked hard to concoct a “Bubble” environment in which to reconstitute the final stages of its regular season in order to put on its playoffs. The plan was good, but the coronavirus may have decided to raise the stakes on the game at the last minute. So … what about the NFL?
Well, if you are something more than a posing Social Justice Warrior, you should be heartened by several actions taken regarding the Washington Redskins:
- The statue of George Preston Marshall – an unmitigated and unrepentant racist in his own time well before the present time – which stood outside RFK Stadium in DC has been taken down.
- The team has removed his name from the seating areas in the lower bowl of Fed Ex Field and replace his name with that of Bobby Mitchell.
- The team has retired Bobby Mitchell’s number. Mitchell was the first Black player on a Skins’ roster and was there only because the Kennedy Administration demanded that Marshall integrate his team before it would be allowed to play in the newly constructed DC Stadium – – now known as RFK Stadium.
Sometimes, progress takes a while to show itself; and sometimes, it manifests in very stark contrasts. This is one of those times for the Washington NFL franchise. Now, the next phase of social awareness revolves around the team name itself – and that is a controversy that has been around for a long time so it might be ripe for some change?
Here is a fundamental multi-dimensional issue that needs to be resolved in the mind of Danny Boy Snyder:
- George Preston Marshall was a racist by almost any standard you may want to set. He made a change in his franchise only when he was looking down the barrel of a banishment by the Federal Government from a new stadium that would enrich his bottom line.
- Danny Boy Snyder now can take a step in the direction of social change that is congruent with where the US is going in 2020. Will he do that – and sacrifice the team name that he rooted for as a kid growing up in the DC area – or will he be a kick-the-can-down-the-road owner who could well be labelled as a racist in future time?
- Will Danny Boy Snyder mature into Daniel M. Snyder …?
While we are in the conceptual space of the NFL and social movements, there would seem to have been a significant sea change in the NFL’s posture there. Maybe it is just a change in rhetorical tone, but maybe it is also a change in philosophy too. The NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has publicly acknowledged the Black Lives Matter Movement – which is, frankly, not such a big deal – and in doing so has reached out to lend a hand to Colin Kaepernick should Kaepernick seek to return to the NFL. I touched on some of the “football issues” related to such a return earlier this week. However, the posture that Goodell is taking now demands scrutiny; is this a major vector heading correction by the league or is this just playing to the current audience with the hope that “this-too-shall-pass”?
Let me not mince words here. Colin Kaepernick was fired from the NFL and not re=-hired for more than 3 years because he spoke out on an issue important to him in a way that was not congruent with the image that the NFL sought to build and maintain. Now, if you take Commissioner Goodell’s words literally, Kaepernick would be welcomed back into the NFL as soon as a team chooses to sign him. Is this a sea change for the NFL? The reason I ask is that I can recall several other players who were “punished” in terms of fines and threats of suspension for expressions of their beliefs that ran afoul of NFL rules related to the NFL image.
I have not researched this so do not hold me to a standard where I have identified all of the cases that are similar to the ones below; these are the ones that come to mind with only a few moments or reflection. The NFL has punished/”fined”:
- Tim Tebow for wearing “John 3:16” as a graphic within his eye black.
- Brandon Marshall for wearing odd-colored shoes to “raise awareness” for mental illnesses. [Aside: Anyone who needed to see Marshall in his odd-colored shoes to be aware of “mental illness” would probably have forgotten about it 15 minutes after that game went off the air.]
- RG3 for wearing a T-shirt to a presser that said something on the order of “Know Jesus And You Know Peace”.
- The Cowboys as a team for planning to have a decal on the star on their helmets to honor Dallas police officers who were killed in the pursuit of their duties.
So, is the “Mea Culpa” offered in the Kaepernick situation a sign that players have more freedom to represent causes important to them during games – – or is the Kaepernick “Mea Culpa” a one-off that is expedient in the current social climate? As is usually the case in such situations, I must declare that I do not read minds and so I do not know. But I will find it interesting to see how all of this evolves over the next months/years.
And by the way, even if the league is willing to allow the players a ton more latitude in terms of uniform and representational messages related to social issues, are there limits beyond which the league is not willing to go? Let me present a few “hot-button issues” and ask purely rhetorically if the NFL might tolerate a player message:
- Favoring – or opposing – abortion?
- Favoring – or opposing – sanctions against a foreign country?
- Favoring – or opposing – a candidate in an election year?
- Favoring – or opposing – legislation pending in the Congress or possibly a Supreme Court nominee?
The watchword of the day in lots of sports journalism has to do with “player empowerment”. While I always try to evaluate what anyone – athlete or not – has to say about an issue in light of his/her credentials to speak on the issue, the current social norm seems to be that if someone is “famous” for one thing, that make him/her qualified to opine cogently about anything. I do not buy into that thinking for even a moment; but it is extant in the land. I will be interested to see the extent to which the NFL loosens the leash on its players when it comes to “in-game demonstrations” regarding causes that are important to the players.
Finally, having spoken of “empowerment” let me present a definition from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm:
“Empowerment: The feeling of being imbued with a sense of one’s own power. A bogus concept popularized by self-help gurus whose best-selling books generate enough profits to give them empowerment up the yin yang.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………