I was speaking to a legend of the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s. No name, although I tell this story with their permission. This individual was very upset about rumors—amplified by the White House as if divine truth—that the NFL would be changing its rules to force players to stand at attention, hand on heart, during the anthem (as of now, they are not, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that the rules will not be changing).
This person could not stand the thought of these athletes’ being humbled by a sport that potentially takes so much away from them—their health, their minds—and now was also on the hunt for their dignity. They implored me to speak to any NFL players and say to them, “If you accept the stripping of your rights like this, it will set the black community back a century.”
This is not a message I will be passing on—and not only because of how comically ridiculous it would sound coming out of my mouth. While I am deeply sympathetic to what this person—and all of us—have invested in the rebellion of NFL players, it is a misread of how much power these athletes actually have and also where change comes from to think that everything is riding on their shoulders. If people think that NFL players are going to lead a new civil-rights movement or even be the substitute for the building of such a movement, then we are setting ourselves up for a profound level of disappointment.
First, there is the social reality of precarious labor. The typical NFL career lasts only three seasons, and players don’t have guaranteed contracts. They can be cut at any time—or even blackballed like Colin Kaepernick if they dare stand for something other than selling their sport. Moreover, they play a uniquely violent game where any play can be their last. That some of these players face all of these obstacles and are still pushing forward in the face of a bullying president and the death threats of his minions is living proof of their courage.
It’s inspiring at a time when inspiration is in short supply. That we are following this story so hungrily is also a testament to how desperately so many of us are for heroes in this era of orange tyranny. But to think that NFL players will lead a resistance in a vacuum is a recipe for regret. If anything, it is evidence—as if more was needed—of the terrible way we are miseducated regarding history in this country—from grade school to the History Channel. We are fed the idea that change happens because of the actions of great men—and occasionally women—each one a modern-day Moses, leading an acquiescent mass to a promised land. This reading of the past conditions us to be passive in the face of injustice, constantly waiting for a superhero savior.
This is, if anything, even truer in the film and book documentations of great athletes who stood at the intersection of sports and politics. The tendency of sports histories is to decontextualize athletes and create icons out of human beings. It’s an approach that has left us with a skewed view of people like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos not as products of the 1960s so much as creators of them. We would be wise to remember the words of Dr. Harry Edwards, who was at the heart of those struggles and then wrote:
It was inevitable that this revolt of the black athlete should develop. With struggles being waged by black people in the areas of education, housing employment and many others, it was only a matter of time before Afro-American athletes shed their fantasies and delusions and asserted their manhood and faced the facts of their existence.… The roots spring from the same seed that produced the sit-ins, the freedom rides and the rebellions in Watts, Detroit and Newark.
Similarly, Billie Jean King and Title IX legislation would never have seen the light of day without the Women’s Liberation Movement. Yes, Billie Jean King shaped that movement, but the movement itself, as she herself says, was a precondition to her emergence.
Today these NFL players are fighting not because they are poring over statistics that show police shootings are up in 2017 or because they just woke up one day and decided that silence was not an option. They exist because of the Black Lives Matter movement. They exist because of the horrors broadly felt when video of police shooting the unarmed like Terence Crutcher and Walter Scott—or the legally armed like Philando Castile—hit social media.
The heroic actions of NFL players raise awareness about an issue that the current president refuses to discuss. But while amplifying the movement is critical, it is not a substitute for a movement in and of itself. The most far-reaching grassroots response to these players has been the sight of young athletes’ taking a knee, from cheerleaders to soccer players, from high-school football players willing to get kicked off their team to German soccer stars. It’s remarkable to see, but it’s also not enough. If players are going to keep up the fight, it will only be because we are doing the hard work of building anti-racist movements in the streets. This is one instance where watching pro athletes absolutely cannot be a spectator sport.