When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick brought light to the issue of police brutality by kneeling in protest during the national anthem, he also exposed the National Football League and America’s deep-rooted racial and economic offenses that have been brewing for decades.
Despite the thinly-covered veil some in the media have used to convey the struggles of black America, the looming issue is one that points to just how much this country has failed African-Americans.
The rise of the black male sports figure and his million-dollar contract produced a safe haven, where blacks found a sense of pride and hope. Somehow, an alternate reality was created in which America found comfortability in the sight of jovial black men playing and loving the sport — all while cashing in the big checks. That imagery perpetuated the deceptive notion that far less black Americans were crippled under the historical weight of a country that had, over time, legally mandated so many financial obstacles in the way of their achievement.
As half of the 14 million black households in America see their median net worth hover around $1,700.00 when you deduct the family car and other consumer durables, the imagery we often see in sports and entertainment — black men living lavishly — has made black America’s struggles ever more difficult to see as the real economic story. Whether we look to mass incarceration, chronic unemployment, dismal college graduation rates, or any other social indicator, it’s clear that African-Americans, and in particular black men, are not getting their fair shot at the American Dream.
Since the early 1980s and the introduction of Reaganomics, the crack cocaine epidemic and a slew of racially-biased laws, African-American men have found themselves largely living life as the underclass. Yet it is behind the decadent veil of the NFL and other sports organizations that the false narrative that the struggle for socio-economic stability had somehow subsided has been projected.
Thankfully, there’s data that shows otherwise.
From the incarceration numbers that show black men are sent to prison at one of the highest rates the modern world has ever seen, to unemployment rates — which in some places like Milwaukee indicate working-age black men are unemployed at rates above 50 percent — the so-called American Dream has not been good to black men by any stretch of the imagination. But inside of the NFL, we could always see the million-dollar black man (albeit while destroying their bodies), happy and loving the sport of football. With Kaepernick and other athletes finally speaking up for the disenfranchised black men who are not in their unique positions, it’s clear that many athletes are finally feeling the racial implications and failures of free markets, and now they’re speaking up about it.
Kaepernick boycotting the national anthem and other football players putting their black fists in the air are signs of not just of protest but of disobedience. A confrontational bucking order of things and standing up to a set of rules that has allowed the NFL — and its white billionaire owners — to thrive.
The very ethos of the NFL is a selling of diversity, opportunity, and American unity. And it’s also one of control; a place where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would heavily punish the Ray Rices or Adrian Petersons of the world if they stepped out of line. The recent events, however, are different and have left the NFL desperately grasping for any opportunity to save itself from a branding nightmare. According to Bleacher Report, NFL executives are going as far as labeling Kaepernick a traitor they want nowhere near their team — a feeling they say mirrors that of an estimated 90 percent of other executives.
In Kaepernick’s own words, these are not unifying times, and he does not intend to act as if these injustices don’t exist. He along with others brave enough to speak out can no longer stand by and act as if we all are united during the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I’ll continue to sit,” Kaepernick said of his protest. “I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country — is representing the way that it’s supposed to — I’ll stand.”
Those are the words of a defiant black man, and not of a NFL quarterback who led his team to a Super Bowl appearance. Kaepernick has made it loud and clear that he is a black man first and that no amount of money can silence him. Now his moment of awakening is starting to catch fire, and it’s sweeping across the NFL as other players join in.
Just recently, former NFL player Shannon Sharpe, speaking on Fox Sports’ “Undisputed,” said, “People seem to think that they can tell, ‘Shannon it’s okay, look at you, look at some of the more prominent African Americans,’ … But no, we make up a small, small portion. We’re disproportionate. We’re not the norm in black society.”
For decades, so many framed their ideas of the state of Black America on the social status of a selected few black male athletes, broadcasted on television screens globally as the new American norm. Now those very black men are standing up and saying they don’t want to play the cover up game anymore. Maybe, just maybe, it will lead us to a place where finally there are no games played at all.
Antonio Moore, an attorney based in Los Angeles, is one of the producers of the Emmy-nominated documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. He has contributed pieces to the Grio, Huffington Post, and Inequality.org on the topics of race, mass incarceration and economics. Follow him on YouTube Channel Tonetalks.