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New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees deserves to be derided for somehow still not understanding what the protests that saw Colin Kaepernick blacklisted from the National Football League were even about, but he’s far from alone in who we should be judging in this moment in time. The various sports leagues themselves have released statements that read like they knew everyone was expecting them to say something about the protests against police brutality of Black Americans, but wanted to make sure they said as little of substance as possible in the process.
This compulsory form of statement-releasing and posting is essentially a call of “Please Like Me” to a wide array of fans. These teams, leagues, and even some of the athletes within them want to be recognized as not explicitly racist or tone deaf, but they also don’t want to actually do anything besides collect on that acknowledgement. Take a look at the NFL’s statement, signed by commissioner Roger Goodell, for instance:
— NFL (@NFL) May 30, 2020
Where to begin. Outside of every brand on the planet having “systemic” on their word of the day calendar in the last week, this is the same league that, again, blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for his peaceful protests against police brutality against Black people — the protests he performed through the power of his and the NFL’s platform that they themselves cite in this statement. What’s changed since then, other than that the NFL has realized that it could harm them in the long run to be so obviously on the wrong side of history? The same exact violence Kaepernick protested by taking a knee during the national anthem before NFL games is ongoing today: all that’s changed is that the NFL is more concerned about you liking them than they were before, when the number of leagues and brands as a whole that aren’t releasing pro-Black Lives Matter statements has shrunk considerably from when Kaepernick was doing his thing.
Outside of the hypocrisy that the NFL will never admit to, though, is the emptiness of this statement. “These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts.” Efforts to what? Commitment to what? What kind of “action” is there an “urgent need” for? How are you going to use that power in the community you cited? Will the NFL actually listen to its players, ones like Kaepernick and Michael Bennett and countless others who know exactly what the score is here, what being a Black person in America means, how violent society can be to you simply for existing, and how police brutality isn’t just a regular part of life, but is even more ingrained into the “fabric of American society” than the NFL?
People have to understand what it is the NFL is engaging with, not just so we know that they are actually engaging with racism and police brutality, but so that the NFL’s platform and its power are actually used in a way that can inform and educate and influence people, like they’re claiming they want to do. It’s not enough to just say, “This thing is bad.” There has to be a conversation explaining the why of it all. As this Vulture piece on anti-racist reading lists point out, you have to actually do the reading in order to learn. It’s in the reading and the discussions that spring from it that learning happens, and the NFL isn’t even telling us exactly what they’re supposedly combatting with their statement. The word police isn’t in it, for instance. “Incidents” is, though, that kind of word the cops love to see in a headline or statement, since it feels so accidental, and not deliberate as their violence against people, especially Black people, is.
Instead, here’s where we are so far:
To date we have donated $44 million to support hundreds of worthy organizations. This year, we are committing an additional $20 million to these causes and we will accelerate efforts to highlight their critical work.
We know that we can and need to do more.
What organizations? What work are they doing, and why is it critical? If you know that you need to do more, $20 million more than usual ain’t it: the league earned over $15 billion in its 2018-2019 season, and that kind of money wouldn’t be possible without the NFL exploiting Black athletes. Out of $15 billion in profits, they found $20 million to send to organizations they’re already working with, to do work they aren’t revealing. Yeah, I’d say you need to do more, too. The players, as usual, are going to pick up the slack, but they won’t be able to do anything during the anthem like Kaepernick, Bennett, and others, since the owners voted to ban pre-game protests back in 2018.
It’s not just the NFL, of course. Major League Baseball put out a toothless statement of their own five days after the NFL’s:
We want to be better, we need to be better, and this is our promise to do the work. pic.twitter.com/2cI6pCBdVb
— MLB (@MLB) June 3, 2020
Emphasis theirs: As my former colleague Harry Lyles put it, “they bolded words to let us know They Mean Business.”
What is the root of the problem, MLB? What does this collaboration look like? What kind of time and effort will go into it? Is it going to take as long to learn about what any of that is as it did for you to create this far-too-late statement that obviously exists mostly because you realized you didn’t have one out yet? Adam Jones, who once said MLB was a “white man’s game” because of who was in charge, and that’s part of what made speaking up about the injustices it perpetrated difficult since it made losing your job very possible, currently plays baseball in Japan because no one wanted to sign him to be more than a mentor or minor leaguer after the 2019 season. Do any of us believe MLB is going to put in the time and effort they claim, or collaborate with their players?
Remember, too, that this is a league that told former Angels’ outfielder Torii Hunter to keep quiet about the time the police invaded his home and held him at gunpoint, then asked him to leave tickets for an Angels’ game after they recognized him. The same league that marketed Hunter during his playing career because of his infectious smile and obvious charisma didn’t want him as anything but a symbol of the positives of Blackness in sport: any negative would just be a distraction, you know? The league that effectively kicked the one player who took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick, Bruce Maxwell, out. And, as Hunter pointed out in his talk with The Athletic, that also likely forced Gary Sheffield out earlier than he needed to go because he was “militant.” The league that posts a photo of Jackie Robinson on social media every April 15, and then says, “Well, that’s enough activism for today.”
The best activist work MLB does is their Police Appreciation Nights, because at least on those nights the cops are off the streets, away from the people they brutalize.
Like with the NFL, you wouldn’t know the police have anything to do with this statement. Who killed George Floyd? Who killed Breonna Taylor? Who killed Ahmaud Arbery? Who, while dressed up in full riot gear, shoots peaceful protestors in the eyes with “non-lethal” rubber bullets? Who sprays children with pepper spray and tear gas until their skin burns? MLB and the NFL apparently can’t tell you, and that’s by design. These leagues, like all of the other brands that will offer up empty platitudes so they can’t be called out for their silence or their lack of work, mostly just don’t want you to be angry with them. If they actually cared about any of what these statements are related to, they would have bothered to tell us what they’re even talking about. Even that’s too much work and self-reflection for these leagues to handle.