On Sunday, a small group of National Football League players risked their careers, their endorsements, and their livelihoods. They did so through the simple act of refusal. They refused to be a prop for the cameras. They refused to swallow their concerns about racism and police violence in order to please the needs of their employers. They refused to be intimidated by sports-radio talkers bashing their character or an online army of shameless thugs threatening their lives with the casual click of someone ordering a book from Amazon. They stood in the proudest tradition of athletes who have used their platforms for social change, and they have already felt a backlash that would ring familiar, almost note-for-note, to anyone acquainted with what that last generation had to endure.
Before naming the players who chose to stand against the current, it is worth setting the stage. Sunday was less a current than a red, white, and blue tsunami. This was opening day for the NFL—by an exponential degree the most popular sports league in the United States—and it was also September 11, 2016, the 15th anniversary of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those attacks killed thousands of innocent people. They also launched an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, the scapegoating of an entire religion, and an illegal war in Iraq that continues to produce an unfathomable body count. The leader of these atrocities, George W. Bush, should have had to answer for his actions. Instead, he was there on Sunday in Arlington, Texas, tossing the coin for the nationally televised game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Cowboys were not alone in bringing out—literally—the big guns. President Obama spoke over the Jumbotron in Seattle and Vice President Joe Biden was live in Philadelphia. Every stadium had troops march onto the field with flags roughly the size of Rhode Island. Warplanes flew overhead. Bald eagles—actual, real-life bald eagles—were even set free to soar for the cameras.
Like those majestic eagles, the NFL has ascended to new heights these last 15 years by pinning the image of their league to our permanent state of war. The Pentagon has made sure that this has been a mutually beneficial relationship, tying military recruitment, staged “salute the troops” events, and a hyper-militarized form of patriotism to the NFL’s brand. Journalist Shaun Scott wrote a masterful excavation of this last week on Sports Illustrated’s website, in an article titled “How the NFL sells (and profits from) the inextricable link between football and war”:
It didn’t matter that NFL players such as Cardinals safety Pat Tillman and Rams center Jason Brown criticized the war; or that actual veterans detested insulting comparisons between the vicissitudes of combat and the triviality of sport.