NFL Teams Can’t Have It Both Ways on Social Justice


It seems every new day during these protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, police brutality, and white supremacy, that there’s a statement by some company, including many sports teams, expressing their sympathy. These statements have been mostly embarrassing either from the vagueness and emptiness of the sentiment or the irony of certain brands standing against racism while being guilty of discrimination themselves.

The farce was exemplified by the Washington football team tweeting a black square in association of the symbolic #BlackOutTuesday, which was created as a suggestion for allies to go silent on social media while promoting black voices, to reflect on recent events, and to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The irony of course is that a team named after a racial slur was pretending to stand for racial justice.

Washington wasn’t alone in being hypocritical. The San Francisco 49ers joined in with a message of their own, and then they were quickly reminded by many people on social media about the role they played in making sure that Colin Kaepernick, who protested police brutality, was exiled from the NFL, which put out a similar statement.

These brands, teams, and leagues, are in a delicate position. With the intensity of the moment, it would be criminal for them to remain silent. Silence would send a message to their black audience and consumers that they don’t care or don’t support the movement in a world where people tend to identify with the corporations they support. Consumers are already skeptical and question whether these same companies actually stand behind their lofty progressive ideals or if they’re only happy to profit from that black audience without having an obligation of support to the people.

The problem is that a lot of these companies are also perpetrators of the same racism that they have to speak out against. If not in the most overt ways like the 49ers or Washington, then by actions like banning peaceful protests, creating and sustaining a system where the labor of the sport is mostly black but the front office staff and coaches are white, and helping to fund the same police departments that their black consumers are victimized by. Not sending out a message indicts them, and sending out a message with their histories indicts them even further.

The middle-ground, which has still been criticized roundly, seems to be for teams to release statements that vaguely mention the ambiguous goals of racial equality and unity, without mentioning the problem of police brutality, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Black Lives Matter. That way, these companies can speak out and appease their black audience without ostracizing white people who may be against the protests or the police. The opportunity to post a black square on social media in supposed support without even having to make a statement has then been a godsend to many of these teams and leagues.

What these corporations seem to either be misunderstanding or purposely overlooking is that this situation is not one that can be solved by making the most comfortable statement. The people aren’t asking for empty support; they’re asking for a reform to the status quo. The demand isn’t for sentimentality, but sensitivity and courage.

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