We need to have a conversation about the National Football League’s use of “woke marketing” or “woke capitalism” or whatever you want to call it, before the weight of its contradictions causes us all to collectively crack. What the NFL did on Sunday was dare the viewing public to sweep away the Buffalo wings from their tables and proclaim the entire endeavor to be a snarling pack of lies.
Just take a cursory look at what the league served up on Sunday: We had a Lollapalooza of Black talent on display, and I’m not even talking about the game itself. There was Grammy Award–winning artist H.E.R., doing a shredded version of “America the Beautiful.” There was future legendary songstress Jazmine Sullivan co-singing the national anthem like only she can. There was Viola Davis narrating a short documentary about one of the integrators of the NFL, Kenny Washington (they left out that the experience for Washington was so harrowing that he said, “If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go”). They had the gall to include a clip of Colin Kaepernick in that tribute, with no mention that he has been exiled from the league for protesting racist police violence during the anthem. There was The Weeknd performing the halftime show, doing whatever it is the Weeknd does. And there was Amanda Gorman, blessing us with a poem about the courage of frontline workers during the pandemic. What an array of talent. What a ghastly lie.
This is a league that remains racially segregated between those with power and those who play. In a sport that is so deeply dependent on Black talent, Black bodies, and the concussive destruction of Black minds, there are still only three Black coaches. There are only a handful of Black executives. There are no Black franchise owners. The sidelines of the Super Bowl were themselves an exposure of these segregationist practices, as Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, as well as its defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, and Kansas City’s OC, Eric Bienemy, are on the outside of the NFL coaching carousel looking in, even though they prove themselves almost every week to be the best at what they do. Bowles should have been the game’s MVP, for the way Tampa Bay’s defense shut down the most explosive offense of our time. These coaches are like a blaring, blinking billboard, reminding us of the gap between the performative presentation of the NFL and the reality of how they do business.
Then there is the case making its way through the courts about the ways that Black former players are being assessed for compensation in a class action settlement regarding concussions. These athletes are having a hard time getting paid because, the suit contends, the NFL’s guidelines for assessing concussions includes a practice plucked from the 19th century called “race norming,” whereby Black players are deemed to have a lower the baseline mental capacity than white players and therefore entitled to fewer benefits. Crudely, “race norming” contends that concussions won’t hurt Black athletes as much because they weren’t very sharp to begin with. It’s ugly as sin, and the case, which has been making its way through the courts for months, is only getting a window of publicity now because of the Super Bowl.
The league responded to these “race norming” accusations in a statement from Commissioner Roger Goodell: “The federal court is overseeing the operation and implementation of that settlement, and we are not part of selecting the clinicians, the medical experts, who are making decisions on a day-to-day basis. And so obviously we’ll work with the court, we’ll continue to see if there are changes that need to be made, but those will be determined by the court.”
The NFL is not the only business to use “woke marketing” while hiding an ugly underbelly. To appeal to a younger generation that is more diverse and less tolerant of intolerance, most businesses play by the “Brooklyn Without Limits” playbook. But it is difficult to think of an institution that does it more ruthlessly than the NFL. “Celebrating Black voices, while stymying Black opportunity and destroying Black minds” is hardly the best look, so the league makes this grand effort to portray itself as something it’s not. The gap between what the owners put forward publicly and the reality of their Jim Crow business practices can no longer be ignored. The question is whether this league will be able to endure the weight of these contradictions for much longer, without actually engaging in real systemic change.
People inside the league offices have told me that these performative displays are a part of trying to turn the page toward a more enlightened future. They say that the league is changing and that progress takes time. I pondered that calculus at the start of Sunday’s game, and then the Kansas City Chiefs’ racist “war chant” was piped through the stadium sound system. This league isn’t changing. It is only becoming more effective at fake representation and false promises.