The NFL has actual problems. Players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem to protest racial injustice has never been one of them.
Indeed, the public outrage that began in 2016, when Central Valley standout Colin Kaepernick, disgusted by police shootings of black men, sat down on a San Francisco 49ers’ bench for the first time, has always been manufactured.
Misguided football fans continue to believe the protest is about disrespecting the military, though it isn't, and an opportunistic President Donald Trump has done everything in his tweeting power to reinforce that notion.
But the NFL, as we’ve seen time and again, lacks not only a spine, but morals. And so it’s infuriating, if not surprising, that, rather than set the record straight, the league approved a new policy Wednesday that will require players to stand during the anthem or be fined. Or to be more exact, “stand and show respect.”
The only reprieve for players is to stay out of sight in the locker room, something guaranteed to insult to dozens of young black men who feel compelled to use their hard-earned fame to push back against institutional racism.
“We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, added: “I'm not trying to diminish issues of our rights here, but the No. 1 thing is our fans, and I know our fans want us to zero in on the game, zero in on football. They want to come to the game and get away from a lot of the other issues that are out here.”
The decision is a dig at Kaepernick, a biracial activist who grew up in Turlock, and his black former 49ers teammate Eric Reid. Both are suing the NFL for colluding to blackball them, as neither has been able to find a job playing as a free agent.
To his credit, 49ers owner Jed York abstained from the vote on Wednesday because he wanted to hear from more players. The NFL Players Association said they weren’t consulted and so will “challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”
But that 30 team owners — all of them wealthy and privileged, most of them white and Republican — approved this policy limiting the free expression of a mostly black male work force is proof of just how tone deaf and prone to plantation mentality the NFL is.
The NFL should take a lesson from the NBA, another professional sports league dominated by black players. Rather than remain blind to the racial and power dynamics, the NBA has encouraged players to speak up in their own way to address causes they care about.
In Sacramento, this has been transformative both for the city and its NBA franchise. Kings players have spoken up in the wake of the Stephon Clark police shooting, and the team as an institution has forged important community partnerships. In Milwaukee, the Bucks on Wednesday came out in support of guard Sterling Brown, who was tased and arrested by police over a minor parking violation.
The NFL also might want to start focusing on actual problems, such as the stream of domestic violence allegations being made against players. (Not that a felony is necessarily enough to get blackballed from the league.) Reuben Foster, a linebacker for the 49ers, had been embroiled in such a case, but a judge largely cleared him of wrongdoing on Wednesday.
There’s also the epidemic of CTE, leaving NFL stars crippled for a lifetime. And the matter of cheerleaders accusing the league of harassment, physical assault and generally unfair employment practices.
Whatever game the NFL is playing, we all deserve better.