The NFL's Social Authoritarianism

The movement for racial equality has finally and not so surprisingly started to emerge in the world of professional sports. At this point, if you do not know that San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as well as other players, have taken a stance against racial inequality by refusing to stand during the national anthem, you must have just awoken from a coma.

Kaepernick’s one man protest in week 3 of the NFL preseason on August 26 has grown to include dozens of athletes in a multitude of sports ranging from the highest of professional levels to colleges, high schools, and youth leagues. These protests have become quite controversial. As it turns out, when you make a stance on an issue that already has society fighting with itself over, some people are not going to like it, especially when it is on national TV, in front of tens of millions of people.  Following his protest, Kaepernick simultaneously became the highest selling jersey in the NFL and the most hated player in the NFL.

There have been two main arguments against these protests. The first is that Kaepernick and all of his followers (at least in the world of professional sports) should not be taking this stance at all. As athletes who are employed under multi-million dollar contracts, they are not the right people to address this issue. They should shut up and play the game that they are payed to play.

The second criticism is that the problem lies in the manner of his protest. There is nothing wrong with protesting inequality, but by breaking the conformity of standing with his right hand over his heart, Colin Kaepernick-and all of the others joining him- are showing a blatant sign of disrespect to the United States in general and to the United States Military in particular.

This first criticism is not at all new to this protest. For decades, there has been a debate over the role of athletes as role models for the general public. Some people adhere to the belief that a professional athlete is no different than any other person. An athlete signs a contract to play their sport and nothing else. An athlete’s high salary and frequent exposure to the public are simply a result of that athlete being particularly good in his/her trade. Even the biggest superstars have no obligation to do anything other than put on a jersey before their game, play better than the other team during the game and collect their check after the game. This rationale has been used to defend players like Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo. All of whom were indisputably excellent at their respective sports, but widely criticized for their huge egos, off-field actions or otherwise morally controversial behavior.

Some, however, push the belief that as famous public figures, athletes are or should act as public role models. Being in the limelight gives them the obligation to set the standard for behavior for everyone. After all, some of the most impactful moments in the history of social movements have come in the sports world. It is hard to argue that Tommie Smith and John Carlos made no positive impact by raising their fists to the national anthem during the 1968 Olympics. Almost every kid that watches sports wants to be just like their favorite player. But there is more to this argument than that. The individuals that we admire say something about our morals as a society, even when we admire them for their skills and abilities. As it turns out, being a role model for someone does not have to be consensual. Athletes and celebrities cannot prevent other people from admiring or looking up to them. Consequently, they should act in a way that reflects positively on the society that they represent as well as the people who idealize them.
A surprising supporter of this belief is the NFL itself. As an organization, the NFL has taken multiple steps to actively instill itself and its players as role models for the public. It started a campaign called Play 60© to use its status as a popular and visible organization to promote childhood exercise and to help curb childhood diabetes. The NFL has also shown that it wants its players to contribute more than just their time on the field. The NFL has implemented measures to denounce and penalize acts that make the NFL look bad to the public. Take, for example, the penalty for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” This penalty is not meant to curb cheating or taking advantage of the rules to gain an unfair competitive advantage in the game. Its only function is to denounce certain behaviors that the public would look down upon such as taunting, obscene celebrations, and blatant examples poor sportsmanship.

Furthermore, look at the case of Marshawn Lynch. After deciding that his job ended at the field and did not extent into the realm of being a positive role model, he continuously refused to take questions from reporters and opted to celebrate in ways that the NFL did not look favorably upon. Thus, he was fined over $200,000 over two years for not talking to the media enough and making obscene gestures during games. Neither of these offenses were related to his athletic abilities. The fines served only to promote the image of the NFL as a benevolent organization that society should look up to and suppress behaviors that it viewed as lewd or otherwise undesirable.

However, its image is just about all the NFL cares about here. While it might seem on the surface that the NFL is all about letting its members take stances to be better moral leaders for its communities, it has taken drastic measures to limit the ability of its teams and players to do so. For the people who argue that the method of Colin Kaepernick’s protests have been inappropriate, this should be the real issue. One of the reasons that Kaepernick has picked the national anthem to be the centerpiece of his protests is that he has few other options if any. Perhaps the most common method athletes have used to draw attention to an issue has been through small modifications to their uniform. Baseball players have been known to write or stitch a message on to their glove. Both baseball and basketball players have been permitted to express themselves through wearing unique shoes, socks, and sleeves during games. However, doing any of these things in the NFL will get you a penalty and a fine. Martellus Bennett learned this when he was fined for wearing cleats that were “too black” or when numerous members of the Pittsburgh Steelers were fined for wearing purple cleats and writing messages in their eye-black, all of which were done to bring awareness to social causes that had killed direct family members of the players such as breast cancer and domestic violence.

The NFL has also instilled peague policies to prevent team-wide displays. It is common practice in the professional sports world, particularly in Major League Baseball for teams to wear modified uniforms to support certain causes. The Toronto Blue Jays wear a unique red uniform on Canada Day. Multiple teams wear modified jerseys for cultural appreciation. The Boston Red Sox wore special uniforms following the Boston Marathon Bombings and just last month, the Miami Marlins wore special uniforms with the name and number of Jose Fernandez following his sudden death. However, the NFL has made it clear that teams are not to try any funny business with their uniforms. NFL teams are limited to only one helmet and three uniforms, one of which can be worn no more than twice in a season for a five-year period. This means that even if having the players and teams of the NFL respond to the most pressing of issues facing society is a virtuous and worthwhile endeavor, they are not able to.

That is what Colin Kaepernick is facing. He has decided that it is his responsibility as a prominent black professional athlete to start a dialogue on racial inequality. But, by taking away the most accessible and most visible forms of protest from him, the NFL has forced Kaepernick to resort to other measures. If the NFL did not have such unreasonably strict rules and penalties in place for individuals to take stances and make statements, there would undoubtedly be more visible protests made by players in the NFL in efforts to respond to the issues facing this country. Instead, the means of players are restricted and player’s incentives to act are overshadowed by looming disciplinary actions. It may appear that the NFL cares about being a role model for society, but that is all it cares about. It does not actually want its members to speak out or take stances on current issues. It just wants them to look like they do. Unless this changes, Social Justice supporters in the NFL will have to keep sitting, kneeling, locking arms and raising their fists in the air, because it is the only symbolic voice they have.

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