There has been a flurry of articles recently proclaiming that NFL player protests against racism and police brutality were winding down and entering a new stage: what a spokesperson for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had branded moving “from protest to progress”.
Then along came Bob McNair.
The Houston Texans owner and billionaire Donald Trump-backer remarked that catering to the concerns of players about racism in the criminal justice system was like “letting inmates run the prison”.
On an issue that in NFL circles was about as sensitive as defusing a bomb with tweezers, McNair brought an axe. The situation immediately detonated.
McNair’s words fed the perception of NFL players — 70% of whom are Black — that the league treats them like expendable pieces of equipment rather than human beings. These grievances are longstanding. Three decades ago, Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm infamously said: “The players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers, and the owners can always get more cattle.”
It is an article of faith among many players that management is indifferent to the toll the game takes on their bodies and brains. It is also an article of faith that many owners act like they don’t just own the franchise but the players.
This is why the demonstrations held during the anthem, while explicitly about racism and police violence, also owe their tenacious endurance to the readiness of Black players to assert their humanity in a dehumanising sport.
According to cornerback Jonathan Joseph, the Texans wanted to be part of the protests but didn’t take part out of deference for McNair. This was how their respect was repaid.
Not surprisingly, most Texans’ players were not only furious when McNair’s quote leaked but also willing to act. According to multipple reports, the team considered an immediate walkout from practice. Even the previously unthinkable idea of a boycott — forfeiting the game — was in the air.
When his words went public, McNair apologised in two separate statements. But any statement from McNair would have meant less than nothing. Apologies for public consumption were never going to make this right.
This is not about hurt feelings between members of the “NFL family”. This is about a Black labour movement. We are witnessing the assertion of the economic power of Black workers to reclaim their humanity.
And like many Black-led labour movements throughout history, they are starting to pull white workers to their side. On the field, we saw white Houston Texanxs’ players either take a knee or rest hands on the shoulders of their Black teammates. Off the field, polls are shifting in favour of protesting players, and the shifting numbers are white respondents.
Change is coming because these players are becoming fully aware of their own power, which means they are also becoming fully aware of their worth.
[Abridged from Edge of Sports.]