Over recent weekends, several NFL teams have engaged in public demonstrations to show their solidarity in response to President Trump’s recent comments about how owners should respond if players follow Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling action during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Several teams chose to kneel during the anthem in direct objection to the President’s comments. Most of another team decided against being on the field until after the anthem ended. Numerous team owners locked arms with players, while others offered public statements expressing support of their players.
Despite the symbolic nature of these demonstrations, they are just that: symbolic. Let’s be clear about what these demonstrations were and were not:
- They were a sign that these players and select owners have a modicum of consciousness of and consideration for the blatant disrespect of players’ rights to engage in peaceful protests.
- They were a sign that sport can be useful as a unifying force in our society, even while differing perspectives exist.
- They were a sign that the NFL is committed to maintaining business as usual amidst tumultuous political times.
The multiple impacts of these demonstrations are not mutually exclusive (either positive or negative).
However, it is important to understand that these demonstrations were not a form of activism.
Activism through sport has manifested in symbolic gestures, sport-based challenges, and grassroots efforts. Yet the most powerful form of activism within a capitalist society is economic activism.
Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee last year was activism because it disrupted the social order, drawing attention to vast inequalities and injustices in our society and issuing a direct call to action to all U.S. citizens — particularly lawmakers, judicial officers, and law enforcement — to be more reflective and prudent in their roles in serving communities that have been historically and contemporarily disadvantaged.
The actions by the NFL teams and their owners this weekend reflect what American author Ibram X. Kendi has described as protecting their self-interests. Make no mistake: The NFL is not primarily concerned with promoting and securing justice for all, but instead with maintaining its economic standing. It is no wonder the same owners who were silent on, or outright condemning of, Kaepernick’s initial act of activism are now offering support to players’ rights to protest peacefully and express their political views. What caused the sudden shift in opinion or tenor? Low NFL ratings signaling a decline in viewership and growing public discontent with disdainful rhetoric and perceived apathy from team owners.
Activism through sport has manifested in symbolic gestures, sport-based challenges, and grassroots efforts. Yet the most powerful form of activism within a capitalist society is economic activism. Numerous NFL fans have engaged in economic activism by diverting their viewership and overall consumption away from regular season games this year. Although not activism, players’ unions in the past have utilized strikes as a means of leveraging their power in negotiations with their teams.
Within the current context, symbolic activism is helpful, but economic activism is the real Black power salute. Black males constitute 70 percent of the NFL, and the causes for which Kaepernick kneeled impact the Black community disproportionately. So these players would make a more powerful statement if they leveraged their economic power to achieve certain aims — whether the aim is to eliminate the overt discrimination against Kaepernick due to his political stance, to push for more substantive changes in the NFL’s stance on proven domestic violence offenders, or to champion their role in promoting social justice in the broader society. When money is impacted, change will follow.
Symbolic gestures garner attention, but economic activism stimulates substantive change. My hope is that NFL players will decide to do more than take a knee, lock arms, and raise a fist for a salute and instead exercise their economic strength to drive the change we really need in sport and society. There is a point when playing the game does not outweigh championing social justice.
Joseph Cooper is an assistant professor of sport management in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut.