Hypocrisy will only get you so far…
One hundred years ago, men from four teams met in an auto showroom in Canton, Ohio. Their vision was to create a professional football league to prevent sports betting and the stealing of players. Little did they know that their meeting would blossom into a hundred-year institution and American staple. Valued at $2.8 billion, the National Football League (NFL) has become about American as apple pie. But over the 100 years that it has been a cultural icon, it has remained stagnant in its social justice and player protection efforts.
According to a report done by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), the NFL’s hiring practice has remained mostly white and leaves little room for other people of color. It is no big secret that the NFL has and still struggles with diversifying their front office and coaching staff across the league. This past season, the NFL only had two owners of color; Kim Pegula of the Buffalo Bills and Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, both of whom have majority ownership and are significantly involved in the operation of the NFL team). Shad Khan, Pakistani-born and principal owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kim Pergula, Asian-American woman and owner of much of the Buffalo Bills, are the only two in this category. This divide has trickled down into the coaching staff as well. This past season, there were only four head coaches of color; Ron Rivera, Brian Flores, Anthony Lynn and Mike Tomlin. For African-Americans, whose players make up 58.9% of the league, the chances of having an African-American coach dropped dramatically, from 21.9% in 2018, to 9.4% in 2019. So the question remains, how has the NFL allowed for such a drop in the number of African-American coaches in the league? The NFL has a rule in place to help combat the lack of diversity amongst its coaching staff and front offices. The “Rooney Rule,” as it has been called, is a rule implemented by the NFL and its owners that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations jobs, such as General Manager or Head of Football Operations. The affirmative action policy that was created in 2003 following the firings of head coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green. Both of them, at the time, had led teams to winning seasons year in and year out. Shortly after the firings, a study was released showing that even though black NFL coaches were winning a higher percentage of games, they were still less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white colleagues. Since the Rooney Rule has come into effect, there have been several NFL teams that have hired black coaches, but 17 years later, the league has the same amount of black head coaches: three.
Having a diverse player population playing for a non-diverse coaching and front office body has created multiple rifts amongst the parties. Not having someone who can relate to your struggles can be hard in any circumstance, but even harder when these are supposed to be people that you must trust with your career. It has also been a major factor in the recent problems that the NFL has faced regarding a particular ad aired during this year’s playoffs. During the AFC championship game, the NFL aired an ad that is part of their Inspire Change campaign. The NFL has put more than $25 million into grants that award social justice organizations led by players, coaches and staff members across the league. This year’s ad focused on Anquan Boldin, a former NFL wide receiver and his non-profit. The ad opens up with Boldin narrating the killing of his cousin Corey Jones. Jones was murdered in October 2015. He had been driving back from a gig when his car broke down on the side of the road. An unmarked van approached his car and officer Nouman Raja, who was in civilian clothing, stepped out of the car. Fearing that he was about to be robbed, Jones pulled out his legally possessed gun. Raja then responded by firing six shots at Jones, hitting him three times and killing him. Raja was found guilty for manslaughter while armed with a firearm and attempted first-degree murder. The ad continues by showing images and videos from Jones’ funeral as well as the outcry of public support following his murder. The emotional ad tugged at the hearts of viewers but raised a larger issue that the NFL has yet to discuss: Colin Kaepernick and the NFL’s lack of support to its players who protest the national anthem.
Troubles creating a strong player-coach relationship with the new head coaches, health issues, and performance were some of the struggles that Kaepernick faced in his career. The 49ers went from being an annual playoff and SuperBowl contenders to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. After losing his starting job in week 9 of the 2015 season and a host of health issues, he was eventually shut down for the remainder of the season. Mounting a comeback on the field for the 2016 season, Kaepernick made a choice that led to the demise of his career. During the 2016 preseason, he was seen sitting during the playing of the national anthem. Following that game in an interview, Kaepernick explained that he could not stand for an anthem that supports a country that still oppresses people of color. The backlash from his protest was tremendous and led to a decrease in viewership of the NFL during that time. Kaepernick along with a few other NFL players continued their protests despite threats from both the front offices of their teams and fans. Kaepernick learned that the 49ers were planning to release him after a rocky 2016 season, but before he could be released Kaepernick, decided to test free agency. However, since his choosing to test free agency, he has not been able to secure a spot on any of the 32 NFL teams. Many, including Kapernick, suspect that the reason for his unemployment was due to his protests and owners colluding to keep him off the field. In response to this, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the league the following year. He cited that owners had banded together to keep him off the field as a way to bring viewership back on the rise. His grievance against the NFL was settled in February of last year, but the quarterback still finds himself without a spot on any of the 32 NFL rosters.
Anquan Boldin and Colin Kaepernick show how the NFL is more concerned with money than cultivating a culture of solidarity and empathy. Anquan Boldin is rewarded for his speaking out against police brutality because he did it in a way that minimizes harm for the NFL and possibly raises the amount of money going into the league. Colin Kapernick is sent off into the unknown because what he did cost the NFL viewers, and viewership boils down to money. Since the backlash from Colin Kaepernick’s exile from the NFL, the league has worked to try and right its wrongs. Last year, they announced that Jay Z and his entertainment company, Roc Nation, would be teaming up with them. Going from the words of “APESHIT:” “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you/Every night we in the endzone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too,” to now working with the NFL is like being a Cowboys fan and then suddenly one day deciding you like the Giants. The partnership has been seen as a last-ditch effort made by the NFL to try and save their brand, hoping to bring a new demographic back to the stadium and television screen. But their efforts have been deemed hypocritical by many. Bringing in a black hip-hop icon has not taken away the fact that the NFL has systematically ended the career of a man who decided to go against the grain. They can kick Colin Kaepernick and his “unpatriotic” protest out because he is bad for business, but that doesn’t explain the countless players that have had murder charges or sexual assault charges brought upon them and how they somehow still find themselves with a job. The same goes for the Rooney Rule; just having a rule in place and a few faces of color in the front office and on the coaching staff doesn’t fix the larger issue. It shows that the NFL still is not seeing how disturbing the problem is. The NFL can pump millions of dollars into campaigns that help to create change, but until the NFL finds a way to increase the number of faces of color at the front office and head coaching level, and help protect their players when they choose to speak out, they are simply fixing a leaky faucet in a burning building.
Alyssa Spady is a second-year Journalism major who tuned in to the SuperBowl for J-Lo & Shakira. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.