Minneapolis will mark the final resting place of the National Football League.
For certain, the sport of football will continue on for the foreseeable future, but in bringing the 2017-2018 season to a close — and with it, its treacherous politics — the league will cease to exist as a sporting institution. Instead, it will become a political institution where the racial politics are central and the sport is supplementary.
There is no way for us to unsee all we’ve seen over the past year, which featured perhaps the most virulent anti-player onslaught in memory. On Sunday, the NFL will surely hope that stellar Super Bowl performances from quarterbacks Tom Brady and Nick Foles distract from the fact that this was the year the league was employed as a bludgeon to coerce its players into silence.
When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in silent protest against police brutality during the 2016-2017 season, his stance roiled the league, but didn’t raze it to the ground. He secured a starting gig on the San Francisco 49ers and earned praise from pundits and fellow players, despite the ineptitude of his team as a whole.
It wasn’t until March 2017, when President Donald Trump effectively warned owners against signing Kaepernick, that the National Football League entered its last days and embraced its utility as a political arm of the administration.
Owners should fear signing Kaepernick if “they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump,” the president reportedly said.
The ensuing months saw feverish objection to Kaepernick, a swell of players protesting in his absence and, ultimately, Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who protested.
It was later reported that these broadsides against predominantly black athletes were calculated attempts by the White House to enliven the president’s base.
That Trump deemed this cause worthy of his showmanship is a damning indictment of his audience. Stoking the flames of racism is neither — as some would say — “genius,” nor the act of a political savant, but rather akin to a party clown animating a crowd with his reliable bag of tricks. It speaks ill — or, more generously, unfavorably — of those he baited that such a simple ploy worked.
But my experience with blackness in America has prepared me well for the perversion of entities I may have once held dear. I’ve learned that we don’t introduce racism and allow it to fester in spite of our national character, but because of it.
Having witnessed the hypnotic power of racism and the eagerness with which Americans give in to it (even when doing so sullies our most esteemed political offices), I would have been foolish to believe we’d prevent the same thing from happening to our most popular sports league.
Forever and always, history will note the mass hysteria that ensued after players expressed their grievance with black people being killed disproportionately by the state. Since the protests began in 2016, anti-player dissent has sprung from everywhere imaginable, including the white nationalist website Stormfront and liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Misunderstanding players' message as a slight against the military was and remains a conscious exercise undertaken by the NFL’s gamut of participants.
But try as we may to obfuscate, the players’ intent was never truly in question. It was outlined clearly here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here ― and those are merely offerings from the players themselves, not including the chorus of columns and think pieces providing much of the same rationale.
Misunderstanding players’ message as a slight against the military was and remains a conscious exercise undertaken by the NFL’s gamut of participants, including objecting fans, players, coaches, owners, and even the league’s commissioner. One wonders how a league could expect to proceed normally with such pervasive disdain or disregard for a broad swath of its players, including those who didn’t protest but who are burdened by the scourge of state-sanctioned violence all the same.
The NFL has long corroborated our implicit biases. For decades, racial stereotypes have dictated who gets to play which position. But one wonders what happens when the league coddles our more dangerous biases. What happens when the NFL becomes a device used not solely for dictating who can run fast and who can read a defense, but also for codifying our beliefs about who deserves to live and die? Can it, then, serve as anything but that? If an ax is used for horrifying misdeeds but returned to the tool cabinet, is it merely an ax again, or is it then a murder weapon?
A league in which nearly 70 percent of players are black boasting no black principal owners ― a league that must institute policy to ensure head coaches of color are even granted an interview with prospective general managers ― a league in which ownership castigates anti-racist protests and capitulates to racist pressures ― is hardly a sports league.
An optimistic reading of circumstances would require my belief that once something becomes an object of racist propaganda, it can coexist as something else. But that is a herculean task, considering the demonstrated intent of fans, media personalities and politicians in all branches of government (and across the ideological spectrum) to maintain the racist overtones in their narrative of wealthy black athletes paying insufficient deference to the great nation that made them ― and to capitalize on them.
These methods are tried and true.
The vice president of the United States saw fit to stage a walkout in protest of NFL players’ anti-racist protests. From a political standpoint, this wasn’t an ill-advised trip, earning Pence praise in conservative media and from Trump’s base.
When Pennsylvania fire chief Paul Smith said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had just “added himself to the list of no good n****rs” amid rumors the coach would allow his players to protest, he was conscious of the implications and reiterated, “Yes, I said it.”
The 2017-2018 NFL season, the unrest preceding it and the caustic anti-player sentiment festering until its bitter end marked a rare occasion in which the league was explicitly weaponized in service of racist disharmony. These are truths unmoved by the fanfare of Super Bowl Sunday — and unfazed by our wishes to forget the depths of our evils and the ease with which we were taken there.
If the shrieks from fans opposed to NFL players protesting social injustice have revealed anything, it is that racism cannibalizes all of our institutions. It invades and perverts even the environments we deem most sterile, and animates them at its whim, once and for all eternity.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly indicated that all principal owners of NFL teams are white.