The National Football League has failed to part with the same systematic issues that are prevalent in institutions across the United States.
There are evident systemic inequalities within government policies, law enforcement, education networks, prison lines, and socio-economic class. The foundations of this country have brought to light various cases of racism, racial discrimination and minority prejudices. The latest act of racial injustice by former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin resulted in the murder of George Floyd, 46.
A filmed incident that literally featured Floyd’s last breath sparked protests around the world, expressing frustration at the police brutality that claimed the life of another innocent black man. The injustices broadcast on the various media channels underline that this is fundamentally a question of human rights. Peaceful protests alongside violent riots and looting across the country are similar in circumstances to the events in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of black teenager Mike Brown in 2014. Meanwhile with a city showing its outrage, the NFL remained relatively silent on the issue of police brutality until the activism of Colin Kaepernick a few years later.
In 2016, Kaepernick used his international platform to peacefully protest the social injustices of police brutality. He did this by kneeling down during the national anthem in every game to bring attention to the issue. Soon after, Kaepernick was questioned in the locker room about the reasons for his protests, but the focus was quickly shifted to how his protest was demonstrated. Media, NFL owners and fans have expressed their displeasure with Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem.
The sole focus of critics was to find out how his protest disrespected the American flag and that individuals were claiming they would boycott the NFL by refusing to attend or watch games. For months, discussions focused on Kaepernick’s peaceful mode of protest rather than the social issues he fought for.
The same lack of empathy was demonstrated on Wednesday as Drew Brees said, “I will never agree with someone who disrespects the flag of the United States of America or our country”, when asked about the players of the NFL kneeling again this season. Brees’s comment does not show support for the issues currently tearing our country apart and distracts attention from an issue that was never intentional on Kaepernick’s or any kneeling player’s part. Brees then posted a statement on Instagram apologizing to his teammates, the city of New Orleans and the black community.
The prejudices inflicted on Kaepernick resulted in him being effectively blackballed by the NFL. Then, to further reduce his protest, NFL owners declared a motion demanding that players show up for the national anthem or stay in the locker room. A protest intended to give a voice to the voiceless has been misinterpreted and endlessly silenced by the NFL.
As fellow author Pete Smith writes, “Kaepernick was a threat not to what he said, but to what he did. He was taking control and the NFL was powerless to stop him in the moment. One of the reasons the NFL has been unable to evade the same systematic problems of modern society is that it still enjoys the same standards of scrutiny rather than the implementation of fairness.
The owners of the NFL are usually billionaires who have full control over any entity they are linked to and those in power are generally not comfortable sacrificing their privileges. The current NFL front office structure is a direct portrayal of inequality and a misrepresentation of its real workforce. Of 32 NFL franchises, only two teams have black general managers: Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins and newly-hired Andrew Berry of the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, representation is also insufficient on the coaching staff with only three black head coaches and two black offensive coordinators. To make matters worse, there is a lack of effectiveness in improving the representation of blacks in these positions, as the pipeline of vacancies is heavily skewed in favor of white applicants.
The NFL tries to pride itself on the equal opportunity it offers to minorities, but that same naive self-praise is what fosters its prejudicial nature. Ignorance of this flawed system is further affirmed by recent comments from Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. At a press conference, Fangio said, “I don’t see any racism in the NFL at all, I don’t see discrimination in the NFL […] if society mirrored an NFL team, we’d all be great. For a head coach to say something so insensitive, it only underscores the ignorance of the reality of black people within the NFL and in society at large. Fangio later issued a statement considered his comments and recognized that what he had said was wrong.
The statement was inaccurate from the start when players such as Richie Incognito and former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper were openly criticized and taped with racial slurs. Former player Martellus Bennett, who has spoken on various topics in the NFL, addressed discrimination towards coaches and black players after Fangio’s comments. Bennett said: “The difference is that [the NFL] need black players to make the league work, they don’t need black coaches to make it work. Quality black applicants have been repeatedly ignored for unproven white applicants and it is the owner’s choice to hire whoever he wants. How can people of color expect fair opportunity when decision makers are unlike them?
Yet the biggest problem with Fangio’s statement is the reflection of the NFL in society, as the NFL and societal institutions reflect a lack of fairness for minorities. The NFL has been consistently criticized for its minimalist and fair approach to improving advancement opportunities for minority candidates. The implementation of the Rooney Rule is a direct example of the NFL acknowledging its shortcomings in this regard. Even with the changes that organizations now have to interview two minority applicants, it didn’t make the process any fairer.
Then, an embarrassing effort was made to promote more fairness within the system by submitting a proposal to encourage franchises to hire candidates from minority backgrounds. The incentives included improving the draft stock for a team based on the hiring and longevity of a minority head coach or general manager. The proposal was insulting because a minority did not have a fairer opportunity, but the franchise would benefit from incentives to hire minority candidates. To me, I felt like minorities weren’t seen as equal enough to be given an opportunity rightly so, but rather here’s a reward for doing what should be done in the first place. There has never been a request for special privileges from minorities and all that is required is fairness.
The difference between equality and equity is how support and resources are distributed. Equality in the NFL is that everyone gets the exact same resources with no background reference. The Rooney Rule attempts to promote equality between candidates but misses the mark. One problem that arises with only equality is that the existing system gives access to resources disproportionately to others who need different forms of access.
The easiest way to understand this question is to analyze coaching research from the past five years. There has been a strong correlation between talented offensive coordinators receiving head coach offers due to the impact of offense on modern play. Essentially, an offensive coordinator has an internal track to becoming a head coach based on recent history.
All applicants enjoy equality when offered an interview, but these coordinators have a slight history-based advantage. As mentioned earlier, there are only two black offensive coordinators in the NFL and if these coordinator positions are widely influential in filling vacancies then minority representation needs to improve. Fairness in the NFL would be about preparing people for positions that could potentially lead to promotions in the coaching staff or the front office, given that that person is qualified.
Protests around the world are calling for fairness and basic human rights for minorities. NFL players and coaches want the same fairness and not only do they lack it in the workplace, but they also face injustices in day-to-day life. While it is entertainment for many and a business for others, the NFL is another institution within society that fails to ensure fairness for its majority. To be fair, society and the NFL must stand up for the oppressed and recognize the privileges it grants to some but denies others.