I don’t want to have to keep writing about the NFL and how baffling I find its thorough mismanagement of the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality. I want there to be better news. Nevertheless, here I am again, considering what on earth Miami Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross, is thinking.
Late last week, the news broke that the Dolphins would punish players who protested during the anthem with fines and suspensions that could be as long as four games. By way of comparison, the league suspended Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jameis Winston for three games for grabbing the crotch of a female Uber driver. What’s becoming clearer the longer all this drags on is that, on the NFL’s part, there is no sense of proportion at work.
There is a lack of a sense of time and its value. A man who sexually assaulted a woman will miss three games as punishment. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick has been jobless for over 500 days for silently protesting racialized police violence.
There is a lack of understanding of history and its admonitions. We’ve been here before with Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali and others. The past tells us the future. It’s clear who the heroes are. Why is there a knife fight over the role of the villain?
There is a failure to muster the moral courage required to shape lasting legacies. These events will all be weighed, and harsh judgments will be passed. The kindest label that will be stuck to those who’ve persecuted Colin Kaepernick and the players who followed his lead is “coward.”
Stephen Ross has built a pristine reputation over decades. By all accounts, he is well-respected and well-loved by his community. When this all began, he was one of the few owners who supported his players and didn’t make a fuss about the protests. That wasn’t surprising. Ross is the founder of a non-profit organization called RISE, which is “dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.” He rejected the notion that the players’ anti-police brutality protests were “a distraction” or “disrespectful.” Then Donald Trump began to throw his weight around. Ross expressed his fear of stepping outside the wishes of the President and began to waffle. Then he folded like a deck chair. I don’t think Stephen Ross is a bad man, just a weak one. In times like these, the difference is immaterial, though.
Ross may also be showing himself to be foolish. The Trump regime reveals itself to be utterly without morals on a daily basis. The announcement of the Dolphins’ amped up version of the league’s Kaepernick Policy* came on the heels of that disastrous Putin-Trump press conference in Helsinki and everyone shouting “traitor” at the top of their lungs. It was a good time to chill in the cut and wait for matters to unfold. The Dolphins making that particular move at that particular time was horrible strategy. There’s nothing for Ross to gain even in the short term (unless there’s something dodgy going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about). And in the long term, capitulating to Donald Trump is a losing game. There will be no end to his demands. He’s like a blackmailer that way — he’ll bleed Ross and anyone else who tries to placate him dry. Proof? This tweet from Donald Trump two days after the Dolphins’policy was announced, where he pushed for even more severe punishment for the players:
The NFL seems to have learned the lessons Ross hadn’t and backed down from the Kaepernick Policy after witnessing the backlash the Dolphins received. Hopefully, the President trying to up the ante again reinforces the lesson — the goalpost is going to keep shifting, so it’s best to hold the line. Something is changing in this debate, and Ross’ decision to implement such a draconian policy looks even more ill-considered in this new light. Ross backtracked over the weekend and released a statement saying that the rules that had been reported were a “placeholder” in a document the Dolphins had submitted to the league.
Ross and others who have reputations and legacies to protect need to take care that history doesn’t hang the “C” word around their necks. The label “collaborator” is something whole families and their descendants have to live down. Immigrants are being referred to as an “infestation.” There are children in internment camps. Others have been shipped all over the country. Still others are unaccounted for. Not a word has been said about where most of the older girls are. Anyone who wants to be remembered warmly shouldn’t stand anywhere near the people who are orchestrating this horror.
To defeat a bully, you have to stand up to him. Donald Trump has decided that the NFL is one of his targets. He’s been open about how opposing the player protests is a winning strategy for him. He’s going to keep punching the NFL, and the only way to get him to stop is to punch back. Hard. The league needs to do what it should have done from the beginning: support the protests as an expression of America’s highest ideals. It needs to repudiate the ugly nationalism and brewing fascism it helped foment. It needs to give the protesting players its full support and protection. Giants’ co-owner, Steve Tisch, seems to have found the plot and released a strong statement of support for the team’s protesting players. Hopefully, other owners will follow his lead. The most important thing the league needs to do, though, is welcome back its prodigal sons, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid.
*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 rules about the player protests the Kaepernick Policy and not the [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.