The NFL's Inconsistent Response To Players' Activism

Photos courtesy of Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and Public Domain Pictures. (Adela Pfaff / The Student Life)

The NFL season started last weekend, and while the games provided plenty of action, much attention remains on issues off the field.

Last season, then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality. Since Kaepernick’s initial protest, many other players have joined suit or shown solidarity in various ways.

This past weekend, some players kneeled or remained seated on the bench, while others linked arms or raised a fist in the air. Anthem protests have nearly become commonplace around the league.

In response to Kaepernick’s initial protest last season, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told NFL Network that he “believes very strongly in patriotism in the NFL,” and that players must “choose respectful ways” of bringing forward societal issues.

Kaepernick did not receive support from the NFL when he chose to take a stand for issues he believed in. This fact has been made much more clear since the QB left the 49ers, as no team has been willing to sign him. Some teams have said they don’t want to bring in a distraction or cause trouble in the locker room, but it is hard to argue that Kaepernick isn’t talented enough to be on a roster.

One of the most outspoken NFL activists aside from Kaepernick is Seattle’s Michael Bennett. On Sept. 6, Bennett tweeted an open letter describing a recent experience with what he deemed to be police brutality.

In the letter, Bennett described how he was in Las Vegas on the night of Aug. 26 to watch the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. While heading back from a club he heard what sounded like gunshots and began to run from the sound with the rest of the crowd. While fleeing, he was grabbed by policemen who thought he was the shooter; he was then handcuffed and forced to the ground at gunpoint.

His letter said that one officer shoved a knee into his back, and that he could not feel his fingers due to the tightness of the handcuffs. Bennett added that he was released by the police after 10 minutes of detainment, once the officers realized he was a professional football player.

Bennett wrote that officers targeted him “for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and that one told him that if he moved he would “blow his [expletive] head off.”

“All I could think of was 'I'm going to die for no other reason than being black and my skin color is somehow a threat,'" he said.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Undersheriff Kevin McMahill said that they do not think the incident was one of racial profiling, but they are investigating the situation.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quick to come to Bennett’s support after the story broke. In a statement released by the league, Goodell said Bennett “represents the best of the NFL” and credits Bennett for bringing up issues that “deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community.”

While this statement of support is encouraging, it is nothing like the league’s response to Kaepernick. The former quarterback has been called a disgrace and told to stick to football, not politics, while Bennett is being celebrated for using his platform to bring up social injustice.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Bennett for his response, or with sympathizing with him after he experienced police brutality firsthand. However, Kaepernick deserves some credit too.

He took a stand when nobody else would, and he helped keep racial injustice and police brutality in the national conversation. Just because he has not been pinned down by the police with a gun to his head does not mean he shouldn't be praised for trying to help those who have. 

The bottom line is that Goodell and the rest of the NFL community are very willing to put on a progressive mask when a player is mistreated. They acknowledge that these issues are important and deserve attention. However, the moment players try to spark actual conversation and debate around these topics, the NFL distances itself from these ‘rogue individuals’ and preaches patriotism and respect.

If athletes want to make their voices heard, they must continue to protest without worrying about the reaction from the league. As fans, we must support these players and allow them to not be silenced or forced out of a job.