An open letter to the NFL:
While protesting may be new to you, protesting in general is not. College students in general have engaged in protests for decades. In fact, we have witnessed an uptick in the number of protests regarding racial inequality in the last 10 or so years. These student-led protests are similar to those from the 1960s. Recall Olympians John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman? Protests and protesters don’t just go away because “leadership” wishes them away. In fact, many protests seem to be met with some resolve through communication with the right folks at the table.
You don’t have the right folks at the table. You have yet to invite people who have thought deeply about social justice, anti-racism, structural racism, inequality and violence against people of color. Your teams have been very clear that they want America to pay attention to, and do something about, social injustice and racism. However, instead of spending time in communication about “it,” you have elected to redefine the protest as one of respectability and patriotism.
By ignoring the actual focus of the protest, the interpretation from conscious or “woke” folks is that you are choosing to ignore social injustices. You are sending a disrespectful message to your athletes and the entire world about what you consider to be important, what you will tolerate and what you condone. That is why sales are down—nothing more—nothing less.
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Racial tension and protests will not go away if you create policies that silence your employees. Folks have every right to protest injustice. In the current context of America, we know the First Amendment interpretation has been twisted to protect the rights of those who espouse hatred. You may recall the many white supremacist marches and speeches. Harrowing as it might seem—a few have received attention and support from various leaders. While I am no expert in constitutional interpretation, I am sure that your forefathers did not have such vitriolic intentions in mind.
Please google the Oct. 9, 2017, CNN interview with Marc Lamont Hill. He argues that you don’t get to decide the meaning of other people’s protests. You don’t get to define or decide that folks are unpatriotic for challenging white supremacy. This is the ultimate form of arrogance. It is not disrespectful to the flag to kneel. It is not disrespectful to a bus to hold a bus boycott, and it is not disrespectful to the Pettus Bridge to march on it for voting rights. These are spectacles to draw attention to some form of oppression, white supremacy and inequality, and to unfairness. You do not get to reinterpret their meaning through culturally incompetent discussion.
By the way, who is leading those discussions? It is clear that the current NFL personnel lack expertise in leading discussions about social justice. How do you support this dialogue in any meaningful way given a significant lack of expertise in the area?
- First of all, YOU cannot lead the discussion. You don’t have the expertise. If you have never engaged in thoughtful and reflective discussions about race, then you are not equipped to lead the discussion. However, you ALL NEED to be present during and IN the discussion.
- Listen to the players/protesters. Name-calling from you and or the highest office in the land does little good for anyone. Plus it’s a national embarrassment.
- Discuss what the protest is about, not how the players are protesting. The players have been clear, but you have NOT been listening. Discuss the focus of the protest— social injustice.
- Calling someone who is a person of color is not the answer. We have all witnessed what occurred when you all tried that route. I needn’t call any names.
Remember that racism does NOT go away by changing a rule to silence your employees. Ultimately, the players are asking the world to pay attention to social injustices. That’s not a bad thing. However, if folks are not talking to each other and the fear of the discussion is so great that it never happens, then nothing changes. You have a great responsibility as NFL leaders. We all know from history how powerful the athletic platform can be.
So please, get it right.
Robin L. Hughes is an Associate Professor at Indiana University Indianapolis. Her research focuses on sports and race. She is Co-editor and co-founder of the Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education (JSSAE), Taylor Francis, Routledge Press.