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The NFL has turned into the No Freedom League

The NFL has a unique opportunity to offer its players a platform for positive social change. Only time will tell if the NFL seizes it.

Oakland Raiders v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

On October 10, Roger Goodell announced that player protests during the national anthem would be among the topics discussed at the NFL owners’ meeting in New York City.

“Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell wrote. “It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”

Goodell explained that one goal of the meeting was to explore “an in-season platform to promote the work of players” on social issues, “and that will help to promote positive change in our country. I expect and look forward to a full and open discussion of these issues when we meet next week in New York.”

“Everyone involved in the game needs to come together on a path forward to continue to be a force for good within our communities, protect the game, and preserve our relationship with fans throughout the country. The NFL is at its best when we ourselves are unified. In that spirit, let’s resolve that next week we will meet this challenge in a unified and positive way.”

Following Goodell’s announcement, President Trump expressed his glee with the following tweet:

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy responded to Trump’s tweet in an email to The Post and stated that “commentary this morning about the Commissioner’s position on the Anthem is not accurate. As we said yesterday, there will be a discussion of these issues at the owners meeting next week.”

As the President and many Americans continue to harp on whether or not players should sit, stand, or kneel during the national anthem, Goodell seems, on the surface, to be listening to players and not giving in to the president.

You may have seen this quote from Colin Kaepernick before, but I want to include it because it’s important to remember why Kaepernick felt so strongly about not standing for the anthem in the first place.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick had been quietly sitting during the anthem for several weeks, but on Aug. 26, 2016 he told a reporter why he was sitting, and more than a year later, the issue has become more convoluted and divisive than ever before. After discussing the method of his protest with Green Beret and NFL long snapper Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided to begin kneeling rather than sitting in an effort to avoid disrespecting the military charged with defending the country.

Few postures are more reverent, reflective, respectful, and in a sense submissive, than kneeling; and yet many Americans still find his carefully contemplated, non-violent direct action incredibly disrespectful.

In his 2016 open letter to Kaepernick in the Army Times, Boyer articulated the perspective of a service member eloquently. He was open to acknowledge how seeing a teammate sitting during the anthem hurt him. But at the same time, his ability to empathize with Kaepernick’s stance allowed him to put fighting on the back burner and to listen with an open heart.

“I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right. What you are doing takes a lot of courage, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes,” Boyer wrote. “I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to say I can relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to war.

“There are already plenty people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. So I’m just going to keep listening, with an open mind. I look forward to the day you're inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. I'll be standing right there next to you. Keep on trying … De Oppresso Liber.”

So today, instead of talking about rampant social and racial injustice, we are talking about whether or not people should be forced to stand during a song. I know many readers will disagree with me, and that’s ok. In this country we are free to disagree, but my hope is that even if you disagree, you will still take the time to listen to others and contemplate these complicated issues.

I wish there were coaches in the NFL like the San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. He offered one of the most insightful commentaries any white person has been able to articulate on the subject.

"Obviously, race is the elephant in the room, and we all understand that,” Popovich said. “Unless it is talked about constantly, it's not going to get better. ... 'Oh, that again. They pulled the race card again. Why do we have to talk about that?' Well, because it's uncomfortable. There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change, whether it's the LGBT community or women's suffrage, race, it doesn't matter.

“People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we're comfortable. We still have no clue of what being born white means. And if you read some of the recent literature, you realize there really is no such thing as whiteness. We kind of made it up. That's not my original thought, but it's true.

"It's hard to sit down and decide that, yes, it's like you're at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. You've got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. But many people can't look at it, it's too difficult. It can't be something that is on their plate on a daily basis. People want to hold their position, people want the status quo, people don't want to give that up. Until it's given up, it's not going to be fixed.”

Popovich is a really good basketball coach, but he might also be one of the most socially conscious white men in all of sports as well. If his words rub you the wrong way, read Richard Wright’s Native Son, or James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, or Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, or The Autobiography of Malcom X, or Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait, or Frederick Douglass’ life narrative and his speech “What, To the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” Those books helped me become more compassionate towards people of color.

It is necessary that we educate ourselves on the complicated and damning histories of the international slave trade, the middle passage, the institution of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Cointelpro, the so-called “War on Drugs”, the militarization of our nation’s local police forces, and the explosion and privatization of today’s prison industrial complex.

There’s a reason why black and Hispanic people are only 29% of the US population, yet they represent 59% of the US prison population; while white people are 64% of the US population and only 39% of the US prison population.

When we read the literature and histories written by other cultures, we can begin to “walk in their shoes” and build compassion and understanding for each other’s everyday struggles. Don’t forget that Kaepernick is now suing the NFL for collusion after protesting the very system that has perhaps purposely left him unemployed. No one articulated this better than ESPN’s Max Kellerman. His pointed commentary begins at the 42 second mark of this video:

There are different ways to view NFL owners contemplating forcing players to stand during the national anthem. Many think it’s necessary and are thankful the NFL owners are attempting to create a perception of respect for the flag, anthem, and military of America. Many either served in the military themselves or may have lost a loved one in battle and want to respect their sacrifice for their country.

I understand and empathize with their stance. They have every right to stand, but I believe that those who fought and died for this country didn't do it so Americans could debate over who is a more proud American than the other. In fact, many service people have come to the defense of Kaepernick even if they disagree with his method of protest. Why? Because they fought for freedom, and under the First Amendment of our Constitution, peaceful protest is protected as free speech.

If one examines the history of the national anthem itself, perhaps one wouldn’t feel so overly compelled to “respect” it. The anthem was written by Francis Scott Key, a prominent and wealthy slave owner and anti-abolitionist who witnessed 25 hours of fighting during the War of 1812, which was not a war of defense, but of colonialism upon profitable trade routes America desired from the British.

There are actually four verses to the anthem, though we only sing the first; and thank God we omit the rest, because the third verse openly references the killing of escaped black slaves fighting for their freedom alongside the British (emphasis added):

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

While Key composed the poem in the early 1800s, the song was not officially made the national anthem until 1931 by President Herbert Hoover. The anthem was formally recognized by the US Navy in 1899 and later in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played before “appropriate occasions” to instill country pride as the US was about to enter a dangerous and deadly WWI.

But this really isn’t about the flag or anthem at its core anyway. It’s about police brutality and systemic racial injustice. I can only imagine how terrifying it must be navigating America as a person of color. The NFL now has an important opportunity to shift the discussion from respecting the anthem towards offering the players a real platform to change our world so that they feel more inclined to stand for it in the future.

If all people, but especially white people, can start empathizing with others, recognizing each other’s life struggles, and stop avoiding uncomfortable conversations that help us learn and grow, a positive change in world wide consciousness can begin to take form. It’s not going to be comfortable, but we’ve been comfortable with America’s deep seated racism for more than 300 years. It’s time to recognize freedom in all its forms, even if that’s taking a knee.