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More than a Game: Protest and Politics of the NFL

Columns | October 24, 2016

On Sunday, October 16, Colin Kaepernick started his first game of the season for the San Francisco 49ers. In a vacuum, there are a lot of interesting things going on here: he was a backup quarterback for a currently very bad team; he is being paid like a star player, due to a massive contract he signed three years ago; he is in this situation because, at the time he signed the contract, the 49ers were dominant, and he appeared to be the best young QB in the league. But the real reason this is at all newsworthy—and why I’m opening a column in the Tufts Observer of all places by writing about a former backup NFL quarterback—is because he has led the most visible and important protest by a pro football player ever.

 

(I should note that I won’t recap the controversy around Kaepernick’s protest, seeing as it’s just incredibly Googleable. I also am unable to muster up and won’t try to deliver any truly unique opinion on it either, but for the record, I support and agree with him and other NFL players who have joined the protest, as well as NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul, who made a similar statement at the ESPY awards this summer, and of course, the WNBA players who started this recent wave of athlete protests in early July.)

 

What I want to get into is the fact that political protests (or really politics of any kind) are so rare within the micro-culture of the NFL that a fairly unremarkable backup quarterback was able to set everything on fire just by taking a knee. NFL players have, of course, expressed political sentiments in the past: various players have expressed support for LGBT rights or the Black Lives Matter movement. However, this number is relatively tiny for a league full of people who, according to demographics—NFL players are largely in their twenties and 66 percent of the league is Black, two blocs that vote Democrat in overwhelming numbers—and the large number of positive responses to Kaepernick’s protest, should lean overwhelmingly liberal.

 

On the whole, the NFL tries to present itself as apolitical—or, given its proud, obsessive flag-wavery and staunch-to-cloying support for the military, even as somewhat conservative. Contrast this with, say, the NBA, which has proudly shown its liberal leanings in the fairly recent past. In terms of diversity, the two leagues should be very similar. Why, then, are they so far apart politically, and why, until now, have NFL players been less politically active?

 

To start with the simple answer: the reason that the NBA and NFL, as entire leagues, hold different political positions is just that their fans have different political leanings. Both sports leagues are, despite their sky-high profit margins and massive cultural standings, ultimately beholden to their fans—on top of buying stadium tickets (which are, honestly, a tiny percentage of the revenue a given team brings in in a season), they’re the ones watching games on TV. It’s the circle of life; sports are consistently popular TV programming, so advertisers pay TV networks large sums of money to run their ads during said games. Networks, in turn, pay sports leagues fairly outrageous sums of money for the rights to broadcast games, which consistently draw viewers, who in turn attract advertisers, and so it goes. Given that political leanings can strongly influence viewer preferences, leagues therefore have a fairly strong financial interest to: a) figure out exactly who their base is, and b) cater to it.

 

Now, knowing this, and knowing that the NBA and NFL know this, and knowing the general political behaviors of both leagues, it’s safe to hazard a guess that NFL viewership tends to be more conservative than that of the NBA. And, thanks to a fun chart that I found on Twitter months ago and have been eagerly awaiting to use since then, we have data to confirm this notion. The NFL’s viewership leans to the right, presenting a very concrete incentive for the NFL to do so as well.

 

The politics of various sports fandoms don’t entirely explain the differences in player outspokenness between the NBA and NFL. In the NBA, players regularly organize and participate in political protests, as well as speak freely to the media about their political beliefs. The NFL, by contrast, has largely been closed-off when it comes to politics.

 

Despite having relatively similar demographics in terms of players, coaches, and ownership, there are some major structural differences between the NFL and NBA in terms of the power of players relative to the power of management, a theme I’ve touched on before. To recap: NFL players, due to their relatively short playing careers, lower star power (they play with their faces and bodies mostly covered, as members of large teams in a particular sports culture that loves hard-ass coaches and hates any distractions), and historically weak players’ union, are afforded significantly less money and power over management than their counterparts in the NBA. NFL players have mostly non-guaranteed contracts and are subject to strict and vaguely random discipline, while NBA players have guaranteed contracts and actually tend to like their league’s commissioner. So, on top of a prevailing conservatism in the NFL on a leaguewide basis, liberal players speaking out for an issue find themselves much less insulated against blowback than socially conscious NBA players.

 

This, of course, leads to a final question: what made Kaepernick’s protest so successful in terms of its spread throughout the league and its staying power? I think it’s a combination of a unique situation for him as a player, and a unique political moment.

 

Kaepernick, at the beginning of this season, had the ultimate job security for an NFL player: due to the vagaries of the very large contract he signed with the 49ers a few years ago, the team would’ve owed him more money if they cut him than if he remained on the team. Because his contract was so large (although it was recently restructured, his previous salary for this season remains in place), it’s difficult for the team to trade him. And finally, because he had already been moved to a backup role the season before and had no real reason to expect to be given back the starting role during this training camp, Kaepernick had the perfect situation in which to make a political statement that, by NFL standards, rates as very controversial.

 

The protest then spread because of the political moment we’re in. The Black Lives Matter movement that Kaepernick has been supporting is not only a widespread political cause, but one that holds tremendous personal importance for NFL players. As I noted before, 66 percent of the league is Black; regardless of their specific feelings about BLM, the problems being brought forward as part of the movement directly impact their lives, their families, and their friends. Meanwhile, the 30 percent of players that are White, 1 percent that are Asian, and 1 percent “other” work in a majority-Black environment; the vast majority of their co-workers, peers, and friends are directly impacted by issues being brought forward by the BLM movement. It just makes sense that this would be the protest movement for which many players would be willing to risk their careers—it’s something that’s both highly public and deeply personal.

 

What does this mean for the NFL, going forward? The major question to consider is how a liberal protest in a conservative league (and the implied revelation, for fans who may never have considered it, that the majority of their favorite players hold political beliefs they strongly object to) ends up impacting the league’s all-important TV ratings. This is, of course, a layered, complex topic in and of itself—so complex, in fact, that I’ll be writing about the NFL’s ratings in their own column sometime soon.

 

Beyond ratings, issues like the longevity and replicability of this protest need to be considered. On the one hand, the conditions that brought about this uniquely widespread protest seem difficult to replicate—in the scarcity not only of players with enough job security to speak out and a willingness to risk their careers to do so (as is the case for Kaepernick, for whom I wish a long and successful career both in the NFL and in activism) but also of political causes that are both highly prominent in the national political conversation and deeply important to a large number of NFL players. On the other hand, the formula behind an NFL protest this long-lived is clear; players wishing to make a statement must do so en masse in order to regain by other methods some measure of the structural security they lack.

 

For these reasons, I’m reluctant to declare a new age of politics in the NFL. However, while the league has shown itself to be willing to come down harshly in cases where it thinks its core business interests are threatened, it would be difficult (if not, legally speaking, impossible) for them to directly punish players for political expression, and lower-level, behind-the-scenes pressure isn’t efficient in terms of deterring players in the context of the numbers in which they’ve already been protesting. Just as BLM doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, this linked NFL protest appears to be similarly long-lived. While the league may not have to radically shift the way it approaches politics in general, it may still be due for a reckoning on this issue.