Dear NFL players,
Please: Don’t stop now! The news that the NFL is pledging $89 million over seven years to sponsor social justice work is heartening. When I last wrote about the NFL protests, I was dismayed by what I saw as a lack of direction. I wanted you, the players, to make specific demands of the NFL and society at large. The Players Coalition, led by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, has done just that, negotiating a plan for owners to donate millions of dollars every year, escalating from $5 million this year all the way up to $12 million from 2021 through 2023. And that’s just for national causes. On the local level, owners would donate $250,000 per year, with players matching that amount. This proposal from the NFL is a win. It is not perfect, and I will address some of its flaws below, but first it is crucial to acknowledge this victory. When Colin Kaepernick first sat for the anthem over a year ago, his prospects for affecting social change seemed slim. This proposal represents the culmination of protests from all of you, from all 30 teams across the league. It shows that you, our athletes, have the power to improve society. It shows that sports can make a difference. And it shows that the NFL is desperate to preserve its image.
That last point is what I want to focus on. As great a victory as this proposal is, now is not the time for you to rest on your laurels and enjoy your hard-earned success. Now is the time it is most necessary to keep pushing. The NFL has cracked, and if you keep demanding change the wave of your activism will soon demolish the dam that is the NFL. What this proposal demonstrates is that the NFL is in a position of weakness. Time and time again, the owners and commissioner Roger Goodell have revealed that they are motivated solely by money. They tried covering up CTE and the other deleterious effects of playing football, and they continually refuse, unlike other major pro sports leagues, to give most players a guaranteed salary, which is particularly malevolent when one considers that the average NFL career lasts only a couple years and often ends in violent injury. And they only took a hard stance on domestic violence when they got thrown into a public outcry.
The NFL does not care about its players, just like it doesn’t care about us average fans. It cares about your talents and our wallets. With this motivation evident, why, then, would Goodell and those owners pledge nearly $100 million to *gasp* social justice? It’s simple. In their calculations, the lost revenue from the controversy surrounding player protests (the NFL’s fanbases are historically pretty conservative, and if there’s one thing conservatives hate more than social change, it’s anything that might somehow possibly be contorted into disrespect of the military — the player protests cover both) is on track to surpass the amount of money they are offering to spend on social justice issues. This decision is an economic one for the NFL.
And that’s why you can’t stop.
The deal has some flaws. Firstly, a couple players, namely Eric Reid (one of the first to join Kaepernick in kneeling) and Michael Thomas, have criticized the deal, saying Jenkins and Boldin negotiated it unilaterally. They claim that the Players Coalition no longer represents the players, if it ever did. These claims are deeply worrisome. Another issue with the deal itself is that half of the work geared towards local organizations, or rather, half the funding, is supposed to come from the players. No. That’s not the point of this deal. This deal is not so the players and NFL can work together. This point is for the elitist institution that is the NFL to sacrifice some of that treasured profit to serve the communities upon which it in many ways relies. The owners aren’t the ones without guaranteed contracts. They aren’t the ones with a rookie wage scale or a salary cap limiting how much they can make. Hell, they don’t even pay for their own stadiums; they get local and state governments to do that. It makes absolutely no sense for players with incredibly short and disposable careers to pay the same amount, even if it is only for part of the deal, as the multi-billionaire owners who reap in the profits year after year. Texans owner Bob McNair said the owners don’t want the “inmates running the prison.” You ever hear of a prison warden and their prisoners funding equally a social justice project?
You can’t stop now because you have proven your power to disrupt the NFL’s money-making machine. You can’t stop now because you have shown us all that your commitment to standing (kneeling) for what you believe in deeply moves people, especially those with whom you disagree. Keep demanding social justice initiatives from the NFL beyond just money. Ask for more from your owners; instead of donating, how about evolving their businesses so that they serve marginalized communities? Ask your owners to revise their hiring practices to ensure racial and gender employment equality. Make the owners pay for their own stadiums, rather than using up taxpayer money. Keep fighting for justice.
America is locked in a battle for our national identity right now. Are we truly the land where all men are created equal? Or are we the country where our founding fathers, who wrote that famous line, owned slaves? Our president clearly leans to the latter, as do the owners and commissioner of the NFL. You are on the other side of that seesaw, pushing the country back towards equality of opportunity for all. Keep pushing! Don’t stop protesting. Now you know you have the leverage. Grip it tighter than you hold the rock on a one-yard goal-line plunge. Life, like football, is a game of inches. This deal is a huge step forward, but 100 yards is a heavy distance. We still have a long way to go.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.