NFL players have succumbed to protest pressure
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 23 NEXT issue. Subscribe today!
From Robinson to Ali, the power of player activism has always been rooted in its moral imperative. The recent wave has been no different, motivated by moments like in August 2014, when Ferguson police shot Michael Brown dead and left his body on the street, baking in the summer heat for hours. Or when police choked Eric Garner to death that same summer, or killed Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher in 2016. People filled the streets to protest the violence. Players like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid joined them in on-field protests.
The sports world did its best to kill the protests, aided by a media that largely refused to understand the revolt and by the willful ignorance of owners and fans who never believed this part of America was a problem. The efforts appear to have succeeded. Kaepernick is still without a job. Reid, a free agent safety, said on March 22 that if signed by a team he would discontinue his two-year practice of kneeling during the anthem in protest of police brutality. The next day, Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin and Devin McCourty -- three members of the Players Coalition, a group of activist players that in November negotiated with owners an $89 million partnership to contribute to social causes -- gave the keynote address at a Harvard seminar on criminal justice reform. Speaking about on-field protest, McCourty told USA Today, "That was a vehicle that we used to draw attention, but doing some type of protest on the field every week is not going to stop an unarmed black kid from getting killed."
The players have clearly succumbed to the prolonged hostility to their cause and suffer a terribly absent sense of self. Their union is ambivalent toward protest, even as jobs are being threatened. Kaepernick, the hero to the people who never quite wanted to lead the people, is still an unquestioned inspiration to millions, but he hasn't spoken nationally in more than a year. In the void, his moral urgency has been co-opted. Unwilling to couple labor solidarity to protest, the players let Kaepernick die professionally, sacrificing their one strength management feared: the power of their numbers. The coalition said their partnership wasn't a quid pro quo to end protests, yet that is what it has become. Players took ownership's money without asking for fairness. Kaepernick and now possibly Reid, who remained unsigned heading into April, have been the human cost -- and everyone seems all right with that.
Yet while the players were cutting deals with owners -- the same owners who have been historically dishonest with them about the dangers of their sport, men who have called them "inmates" and treat them as disposable -- children from Parkland to Chicago, tired of gun violence, many first inspired by Kaepernick, went precisely to the place the players negotiated to avoid: the streets. The kids went out and marched, a million strong. They incorporated the kids from Columbine who are now adults, and the parents from Sandy Hook. When black kids wrecked by gun violence felt omitted, they forced their way into the fight, made themselves be seen. The movement incorporated military veterans who shared their gun-control views, a strategic alliance that obscured the violence of constant war but muted accusations that the kids were unpatriotic. It was alliance-building the players ignored-hundreds of police officers lead anti-police brutality organizations -- and the result was being branded as anti-cop.
The kids faced attacks of their own, just not at the level of hostility facing protesting players. They are slowly connecting the dots from gun violence to domestic violence to police violence, dots the players were too willing to disconnect. They moved America without begging the powerful for money -- or by having their movement co-opted by sneaker companies. Their success illuminates the players' failure, because at the same time the coalition talked down demonstration at Harvard, the moral imperative to do so has only increased. In Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died in police custody, two officers were found guilty of corruption and six others pleaded guilty to it. Houston police killed Danny Ray Thomas, another unarmed black man. Four days earlier, Sacramento police killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother's backyard, shooting him multiple times in the back. Louisiana prosecutors announced that Baton Rouge police who fatally shot Alton Sterling in 2016 -- the killing that ignited the activism of Reid and Jenkins -- would not be charged.
For their compromise, NFL players now look like followers who settled for a check instead of having the stamina to stay in the streets, where movements are always at their most dangerous. Maybe it's fitting. The kids don't seem to need them anyway.