NFL players stand at a crossroads following the league’s announcement that they must stand for the national anthem if they are on the sideline. As athlete activists consider their next move, they should appreciate that while their advocacy for criminal justice reform and racial equality is working, a shift in tactics is needed to have greater impact.
It is true that the new NFL policy curtails players’ freedom of speech, Colin Kaepernick and now Eric Reid are being blackballed for their roles in initiating the demonstrations, and more important, African Americans remain subject to racial discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. However, NFL player protests have raised awareness among a broad group of Americans, brought together disparate groups on behalf of criminal justice reform, and demonstrated that athletes can exercise pressure on team owners and the league.
Racial equality and aspects of criminal justice reform are now being discussed at every level throughout the country, from elementary school students taking a knee to the owner of the Sacramento Kings committing to support the Build.Black.Coalition after the shooting of Stephon Clark. Undoubtedly, the positions and policies of the Trump administration have triggered a heightened level of consciousness, yet the NFL protests have certainly raised awareness.
It is also significant that player protests have captured the attention of the White House. The president may consider his attacks on NFL players a way to stoke his base. However, each of his racist, misogynist, and xenophobic comments brings together advocacy groups, activists, and individual citizens from Parkland, Fla., to Chicago. These coalitions are working towards local change, yet they are seizing national attention and support in their opposition to the president as he unintentionally lends them his social media platform.
Further, in a reversal of power dynamics, team owners and league officials find themselves scrambling in response to the player protests. After contentious meetings, owners have agreed to support $90 million of programs that advance social justice issues through 2023, and this most recent announcement comes across as a panicked attempt to preempt damage next season. Owners have drawn the conclusion that it was the player protests that led NFL ratings to drop about 10 percent last year and have unwittingly ceded power to the players. In reality, that downturn was surely impacted by factors that included injuries to star players and the data now available about the effects of concussions.
So, as athlete activists consider what’s next, they should remember that they were never going to kneel their way to bail bond reform or the elimination of mandatory federal sentencing. Rather, with this administration, criminal justice reform will occur through policy changes at the local level and cultural change at the grassroots level, i.e. the election of reform-minded candidates in November and the creation of new relationships between law enforcement and people of color at the community level.
While players will feel a natural urge to counter this latest NFL edict with single-act defiance, there are at least three other ways to more effectively initiate change.
First, players should keep their message sharp and articulate key points about the need for criminal justice reform at every opportunity. Players should speak to specific issues, cite statistics, and introduce personal anecdotal evidence on social media, at football camps, in public appearances, and in post-game interviews.
Second, players should focus on their team communities and hometowns. They should lobby elected officials, from senators to district attorneys; endorse candidates who align on the issues; and support voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns. In particular, players should seek out alliances with local organizations and initiatives that support veterans, from suicide prevention to helping the homeless. Supporting veterans is universally considered a decent thing to do, and it undercuts the bait-and-switch patriotic angle that is currently being used against NFL players.
Third, players should demand more from team owners and the league. Owners need to do more within their networks if they want to avoid end zone re-enactments of John Carlos’ black power salute in Mexico City. Specifically, they should join players in meetings with congressional representatives and support real criminal justice reform. A current target of opportunity is the prison reform bill that now sits in the Senate and that does not eliminate mandatory sentencing for drug offenses. In addition, $90 million for social justice programs falls short; the league was expected to reach $14 billion in revenue last year. In every NFL city, the league should support a consistent portfolio of grants and programs that change relationships between law enforcement and underserved communities.
Grassroots-led social change is born through holding the moral high ground and persuading a critical mass to join the movement. At this stage, NFL activists’ push for criminal justice reform relies on players remaining focused on why they chose to kneel in the first place and engaging in tactics that match this current situation.
Benjamin Orbach is the CEO of the Ascendant Athlete LLC and the author of “Live From Jordan.” BenjaminO@ascendantathlete.com.