I’d love to be a fly on the wall when the NFL brass discuss Colin Kaepernick and the aftermath of his season-long silent protest against racialized police brutality. I want to listen in on the conversations that are leading to the comprehensive bungling we’re witnessing. Who shouts out these horrible ideas, who co-signs them enthusiastically, and who cringes in a corner trying not to sob in frustration? How long will we get to watch the league fall down a never-ending flight of stairs in slow motion?
In the latest debacle: the NFL’s Kaepernick Policy* blew up in its face, just like many of us knew it would.
When the NFL Commissioner’s office announced that it would be punishing players who continued Colin Kapernick’s silent protest, it was a clear play to try and placate Donald Trump, who has been vocal about believing that opposing the players’ protests is a winning issue for him. The Kaepernick Policy required players to show “proper respect” during the national anthem or remain in the locker room. The vagueness of the command makes the rule virtually impossible to enforce in a predictable, fair manner. There’s also something sinisterly heavy-handed and authoritarian about it, and, for the first time since this whole thing started, some owners broke ranks, going so far as to condemn the new rules and offering to pay the players’ fines. The immediate aftermath of the announcement was a mess, and it was obvious there would be more body blows coming.
Donald Trump has decided the NFL is one of his punching bags, and it was only a matter of time before he hit out against the league again. At a rally in Montana, he said, “I don’t want to cause controversy but how about they passed this stupid thing. You don’t have to do this anymore. If you don’t respect the flag or if you don’t like the country — or whatever it is — just go into the locker room.” He went on to add, “I think in many respects that’s worse. Isn’t this worse than not standing, you know? I think that’s worse.”
It’s untoward to say, “I told you so.” It’s even more unseemly to quote oneself while doing so. Nevertheless, I believe this portion of my story on the announcement of the Kaepernick Policy bears repeating:
Even more egregious is Goodell’s belief that he could triangulate to safe ground with Trump. Megalomania and fascism function by demanding strict adherence to rules that are changed on a whim. There is no middle ground by design. The ever-shifting landscape destabilizes people and keeps them guessing, allowing power to be consolidated and outrages against decency to be committed while everyone keeps updating the handbook and trying to make sense of it. The pettier the infraction in question, the better. Performative patriotism is particularly fertile ground, because it’s always so easy to whip some significant portion of the populace into a nationalistic frenzy.
Goodell doesn’t fully understand what he has capitulated to. Or perhaps he just doesn’t care. After all, he’s being allowed to steal a lucrative living.
The NFL was playing with fire when it chose aggressive, militaristic nationalism as a marketing tool, and it is learning the hard way that this stove is always scorching. There’s a reason nationalism is demagogues’ go-to move: it works. Until it doesn’t. The NFL is facing the consequences of thinking there would be only upside when they made that play.
For better or worse (it looks like worse), the NFL has stumbled its way into being a key player in one of the most important moments in modern American history. The owners who came out against the Kaepernick Policy are finally beginning to get it. This is all much, much bigger than football. Lines are being drawn every single day, and Americans — including billionaire sports franchise owners — are going to have to decide whether they actually believe in freedom or if it’s just a tagline.
When Colin Kaepernick explained why he took a knee, he echoed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sentiments about the “bad check” America had written the descendants of the enslaved Africans who built its wealth. It was a statement of resistance against not only the systemic injustice Kaepernick wanted to shine a light on but of the phony, mandatory patriotism that’s used to paper it over. The viciousness of the backlash against him, how outrageously disproportionate it was, was one of the final warnings about how dark a turn his country would take.
There are camps being built. The records of who is being detained and where they’re being sent are being destroyed. Children are missing. No one is saying where the older girls are. A baby who hadn’t been washed in months was returned to his mother covered in body lice. These actions are deliberate. Pretending they aren’t will make things worse.
This isn’t normal. This isn’t business as usual. There is no making deals with this. There is no coming to terms with it. It cannot be negotiated with.
When this all plays out to the bitter end, reputations will be obliterated. There are people, whole families, who are never going to live down having actively participated in or eased the way for the atrocities to occur. Right now, the NFL is in appeasement mode, and it’s probably too conservative an organization to do otherwise. The only way for them to save face under the harsh glare of future historians is to get Colin Kaepernick and the other players they’ve blackballed onto teams and stand up to whatever comes next. They have the money and the influence. They lack the courage, though, so it seems the NFL’s leaders have decided to consign themselves to the trash heap of history.
*Framing matters. There are certain words and phrases we are being manipulated into repeating. That is why I made the decision not to call the NFL’s new rules its [fill in the blank with the word they want us to repeat as many times as possible] policy. Our choice of language is a powerful tool against propaganda. I understand that journalists doing the first round of reporting have less leeway than those of us providing commentary days later.