Opinion | What Will It Take For The NFL (And America) To Change For Good?

If you want to know about America, look to the National Football League. It’s a violent, masculine organization that rakes in money and is incredibly popular (even in its decline). Despite years of divisions across racial lines on and off the field, numerous instances of domestic violence accusations and overall disregard for the mental health of the players, the NFL still inspires deep loyalty in fans.

This was meant to be the season of reckoning. The road to Sunday’s Super Bowl was paved with protests from the public and the president. Players kneeled while viewers boycotted the league and it’s advertisers. Problematic players and leaders in the league were fired or forced to step down. The question is, has the spotlight on the underbelly of America’s beloved sport changed the league (and our country) for good?

This season began with calls for a boycott of the league. There was no bigger NFL story this year than that of the systemic oppression protests that took place during the playing of the national anthem before the games. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the protests at the start of the 2016-2017 season in order to draw attention to “the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system.” Kaepernick was cut by the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the season and couldn’t find a job in the league after that.

If the NFL does reflect America back at itself, then systemic change is not on the horizon.

President Donald Trump got in on the action at a campaign-style rally in Alabama in late September, telling the crowd, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ’Get that son of a bitch off the field right now…. He’s fired!” A few weeks later, Vice President Mike Pence staged a walkout at an NFL game because two dozen San Francisco 49ers knelt during the anthem.

As protests continued throughout the season, the team owners were scrambling to figure out what to do about this, which is when, during a meeting to discuss it all, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison,” for which he was forced to apologize. NFL owners are all white ― as are most coaches ― while the majority of people actually putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment are black, reflecting America’s stark racial dynamics on the field.

Then #MeToo came home to the NFL. Multiple people at the NFL Network were suspended following reports of sexual harassment. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson put his team up for sale after Sports Illustrated revealed a pattern of sexual harassment by Richardson. Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis, who were also reported for behavior while they were at the NFL Network, were fired from their current jobs at ESPN over those reports.

Much of the front half of the season was focused on a fight in the courts over whether the NFL’s six-game suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for domestic violence would be upheld. It was, then it wasn’t, then it was again. Elliott eventually served his suspension, but this was yet another case of gendered harassment and violence wherein people argued about the league’s right to suspend players for behavior outside the scope of the game and about how a community can choose to respond to cases of reported violence outside of the criminal system.

When all of this happened, it felt huge. It felt like people were paying attention to the real issues affecting real people and players in the league. And then we made it to the postseason.

Suddenly, the protests, boycotts and court cases of the preseason were old news. Stories now focused on the Buffalo Bills returning to the playoffs, Tom Brady’s gloves and the unlikely event that Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Nick Foles would all be quarterbacking in divisional championship games. It’s not that all that other discussion disappeared, but it was muted. Problematic owners and players weren’t in the postseason. Although the Trump administration seemed hellbent on trashing the league for months on end, it made sure to get the troops access to the NFC and AFC Championship Games in case of a government shutdown. Some of the very players Trump called “sons of bitches” just months earlier were playing, and we were cheering for them all. It’s a weird kind of neutral, apolitical space about which the NFL is probably thrilled. One wonders then, what’s next?

This season has shown us too much of the underbelly of both the country and the league for us to feign ignorance anymore.

If, in fact, the NFL does reflect America back at itself, then systemic change is not on the horizon. After a tumultuous but also, in many ways, unprecedented season, it feels like we have put the protests and walkouts and scandals on the back burner during the bumpy road to the playoffs. Perhaps it is political exhaustion and a desired return to a focus mostly on the game itself. Perhaps it is a combination of our short attention spans and our tendency to dismiss the plights of women and black people.

Will the NFL’s powerful Teflon coat continue to allow the league to wipe off the residue of this season and go into the off-season clean? If Trump’s ability to wiggle out of, well, everything, or our historical response to gendered violence are any guide, things will probably end up staying much the same.

But, maybe, the Teflon is beginning to flake. It’s not clear where Trump will be a year from now (or, hell, where he’ll be even tomorrow). He did use his first State of the Union speech to make a dig at the kneeling players. Those players, though, are dedicated to these causes, and some have continued to speak about them during Super Bowl week. The Eagles’ Torrey Smith and Chris Long both said they wouldn’t visit the White House if their team won (which echoes the decision many Patriot players made last season). Smith, Long and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins have also teamed up with other notable NFL players to discuss what it means to be a #WokeAthlete.

Kaepernick has recently completed his pledge to donate $1 million across a variety of grassroots organizations throughout the country, having made a new career of doing social justice work. And for fans who are ambivalent this weekend about watching the game, Emma Sandoe and comedian Josh Gondelman (both Pats fans) have brought back the #AGoodGame campaign that they created last year. It’s for any political NFL fan to offset their ambivalence about tuning in by, as Gondelman recently tweeted, pledging “a little money to a good cause when they score during the Super Bowl.” The #MeToo movement is still going strong. The NFL will continue to have to deal with how it handles reports of gendered harassment and violence (unless all go the way of the Panthers’ Richardson, but that’s unlikely).

The problems of racial injustice and misogyny are threaded throughout both the NFL and America. This season has shown us too much of the underbelly of both the country and the league for us to feign ignorance anymore. After this season, we can’t drop the ball. We must continue to hold our country’s beloved sport accountable.

Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, author and co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.” 

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