How the NFL got woke

The football field should be a radical space

In the summer of 2016, with America teetering on the brink of a dark twisted fantasy straight out of the Black Mirror writers’ room, Colin Kaepernick — the scrappy, frustratingly-inconsistent, and gloriously afroed San Francisco 49ers Quarterback — refused to stand for the national anthem before an NFL pre-season game.

“I am not going to stand to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick announced in a post-game interview.

For Kaepernick, taking a stand against America’s poisonous legacy of white supremacy — a legacy that saw Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile murdered by the men who were meant to protect them — was “bigger than football”.

Like many great protests, Kaepernick’s was simple: as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played, he kneeled, head bowed, as if in prayer. And while other players soon joined him, like many protests the message was soon drowned out by the partisan mud-slinging that defines America’s bitterly polarised political landscape. The silent solemnity of those men with their heads bowed could never rise above the screeching hysteria of Fox News pundits and presidential wannabes.

That Kaepernick should just shut up and “stick to football” was the common sentiment, spouted by everyone from conservative talking heads and former football stars to Liberal darling and supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A year on, Kaepernick is without a team. He has, in effect, been blackballed by image-obsessed, risk-averse (and predominantly rich, white, and male) owners for daring to disrupt the absurd, militaristic pageantry that accompanies NFL games. Given the comical ineptitude shown by so many starting quarterbacks in the early weeks of the 2017 season, Kaepernick’s omission seems particularly egregious.

Yet the Trump era has given new animus to Kaepernick’s protests. At a rally in Alabama, in the heart of the old Confederacy and where football is a second religion, Trump declared that NFL owners ought to “get that son of a bitch off the field”. Once upon a time, Republicans would dog-whistle —  Trump simply howls.

Unsurprisingly, the Alabama speech backfired spectacularly. In a now predominantly black league, most players chose Kaepernick over Trump. More heads were bowed, more knees were taken. The league, smelling a much-needed PR victory to atone for a summer of cumbersome blunders, quickly found a way to commodify Kaepernick’s protest. NFL owners, many of whom had donated to the Trump campaign, condemned the comments and rushed to co-opt the knee into their set of carefully choreographed pre-game rituals. Before the anthem, players now stand arm in arm. As the cameras pan over them, the League mumbles vague platitudes about ‘unity’, and transcending divides, language straight out of the #resistance playbook. The violent carnage of the American police state is forgotten. Instead, we get a display of insipid, performative ‘wokeness’ that allows owners to ride the wave of anti-Trump sentiment while quickly de-politicising and whitewashing the radicalism behind the Knee.

Yet even in the NFL’s milquetoast posturing, there is a sense of palpable change. Kaepernick ‘moved the chains’ to the left, and like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos before him, forced discussions of racial justice into the living rooms of middle America. Indeed, while Kaepernick is part of a long tradition of Black American athletes who have used their pulpit to speak powerfully against racism, he has normalised protest amongst sports stars in an unprecedented way.

In Australia, we are still waiting for our Kaepernick moment. We like our athletes mute and docile, filling press-conferences with tired, scripted banalities —  full credit to the boys. We like to believe, as Tony Abbott articulated in a desperate attempt to appropriate America’s culture war last week, that “sport is sport”. But sporting contests are not played out in a de-politicised vacuum; they reflect the cultural milieu in which they occur. And in Australia, this is a culture in which we steer clear of conversations about racism, and where we remain profoundly ignorant of our violent colonial past. Unlike America, where race discourse is an unavoidable political reality, we like to bury our heads in the sand and imagine a post-racial utopia.

When our stars dare to speak up about race, politics, or anything of substance, the retribution is swift and vicious. Adam Goodes was booed out of the AFL. Peter Norman, the third man in that iconic picture from the 1968 Olympics, and at the time, the fastest man in Australia, never ran again.

Right wing politicians, like Trump and Abbott cling to the myth of the football field as an apolitical space because doing so allows them to remain powerful. It absolves them from having difficult conversations about the injustices in which they are complicit, be it the shooting of unarmed black men, indigenous deaths in custody, or dehumanising LGBT Australians by legislating their civil rights via opinion poll.

We cannot hide from these inconvenient truths when they are placed front and centre of our recreational pageantry. And while both the American and Australian governments are implicit in racial oppression, we cannot expect leagues dominated by people of colour to remain silent, de-politicised spaces.

In a better world, all athletes, black, white, American, Australian, would stand (or kneel) with Kaepernick. In a perfect world, Kaepernick wouldn’t have had to kneel in the first place.