The NFL season, come pandemic or revolution, will almost certainly begin this fall—and it is going to be “put up or shut up” time for the league’s white players. Here’s the reality: Many black players will be taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and racial inequity. After a remarkable video made by black NFL players condemning the league’s tepid support for the Black Lives Matter protests, Roger Goodell said in a video statement, among other things, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”
Whether Goodell made this speech to head off a players’ revolt in a league that is 70 percent black or for some other reason is an interesting query. But whatever you make of Goodell’s sincerity, there is no mistaking his intention: to admit that there should be no punitive or even rhetorical action condemning players for taking that knee in the future. Even if you are as put off as I am with Goodell’s inability to admit that Colin Kaepernick was forced out of the league and denied the ability to earn a living because of his protest, the line the NFL commissioner is drawing is clear: No longer will he cower behind the shield, caring more about Donald Trump’s Twitter finger than the demands of the league’s players to dissent.
Sure enough, Trump—always seeking an opportunity to use the NFL as his own personal racist and nationalistic football—put out a tweet saying:
Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?
The answer is that Goodell was more than intimating. He was giving Trump a tentative, quivering middle finger, yet a middle finger nonetheless. Now, pardon the sports mixed metaphor, the ball is in the player’s court. To put a finer point on it, it is in the white players’ court.
In 2016 and ’17 many white players made clear that they did not believe people should “disrespect the flag” during the anthem, as if that is what Kaepernick was doing. Only after Trump called the protesting players “sons of bitches” who should be kicked out of the sport did we see white players kneel, and that was done with the approval of ownership. It was staged, and it had far more to do with standing up to Trump than solidarity with black lives taken by police violence or allyship with their black teammates.
This is a far different moment. White players like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz have made eloquent statements in support of their black teammates while recognizing their own privilege. Other white NFL players have made their own statements of solidarity. The Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars teams and coaches even marched in the protests. But the proof of the pudding is going to be whether their knees hit the ground the first time that anthem plays. No hands on shoulders, no linked arms, no raised fists, but actually taking the weight and scrutiny off their black teammates by taking a knee.
As Full Dissidence author Howard Bryant said to me, “The kneeling gesture is the spot where America comes apart, where all the post-9/11 pro-police messaging and militarism at sporting events collides with the reality of the cops and military. In no other element of our culture is there such a clear and defiant single gesture like taking a knee. Where else are we allowed the space to say we disagree with our police? Where else can we register with one gesture, dissent with the alleged ideals of this country? America is getting called out with this one gesture and they are determined to punish anyone using it.”
Take the knee, white players. That will show that this is more than just performative anti-racism, more than just tweets and Instagram statements, more than just fear of alienating your teammates. It’s time to show true allyship and demonstrate in practice that all the rhetoric about a football team’s being family isn’t bullshit. Take the knee to show Donald Trump and the world that you will not be divided. Take the knee as a way to say once and for all that black lives do in fact matter.