While protesting in the NFL may be new to you, protesting in general is not. Black college students and college students in general have engaged in protests for decades. In fact, we have witnessed an uptick in the number of protests with regards to racial inequality and violence against people of color in the last 10 or so years. These student-led protests are similar to those witnessed in the 1960’s and even the protest led by Olympians John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman in 1968.
Protests and protesters don’t just go away because organizational leadership wishes them away. In fact, many protests seem to be met with some resolve through communication with organizational leadership—although not perfect, communication with the right folks at the table seems to always be key.
So, this is what I want to share: You don’t have the right folks at the table. The NFL protest has some similarities to campus protests, but it is also different because you have yet to sit down with your players and with culturally competent leadership and support at the same table. Your organization has shown that you have very few or none at all. That, Papa John, is why it is taking so long to reach some resolution.
You have yet to sit with people who have thought deeply and thoughtfully about social justice, anti-racism, structural racism, inequality, and violence against people color. Your teams have been very clear that they want America to pay attention to, and do something about, social injustice and racism. Instead of spending time in communication about those topics, you have elected to change the topic. You instead elected to redefine the protest as one of respectability and patriotism.
By ignoring the actual focus of the NFL protest, the interpretation from conscious or “woke” folks is that you are choosing to ignore inequity, hate speech, and the brutal murder of Black males. You are sending a disrespectful message to your athletes and the entire world about what you consider to be important, what you will tolerate, and what, quite frankly, you condone. This is a critical message, given that your own team membership is overwhelmingly Black and male.
Racial tension and protests will not simply go away if you create policies that silence people—in this case your employees. As you know, at least I hope you know, folks have every right to protest injustice. In the current context of America, we have EVEN witnessed folks who have twisted the First Amendment’s interpretation to protect their rights in order to espouse hatred towards different groups.
You may recall the many White supremacist marches and speeches. Harrowing as it might seem—a few have received attention and support from various leaders and pundits throughout the United States. While I am no expert in constitutional interpretation, I am sure that your forefathers did not have such vitriolic intentions in mind when they assured freedom of speech via the First Amendment. (See the pursuit of happiness part.)
I will call your attention to the October 9, 2017 CNN interview with Dr. Marc Lamont Hill. I hope that you search the two-minute talk. I will try to capture it here. He argues that you don’t get to decide the meaning of other people’s protests, and you certainly don’t get to define or decide that folks are unpatriotic for challenging White supremacy. This is the ultimate form of arrogance. He states that it is not disrespectful to the flag to kneel and it is not disrespectful to a bus to hold a bus boycott and it is not disrespectful to the Pettus Bridge to march on it for voting rights. These are spectacles to draw attention to some form of oppression, White supremacy, inequality, and unfairness. You do not get to reinterpret their meaning.
I recognize that there has been some discussion among players, owners, and commissioners. I am asking: Who is leading those discussions given that it is clear that the NFL is not an expert in leading anti-racist, culturally competent discussions and thus has little knowledge about how to support this dialogue in any meaningful way?
I know that these discussions are difficult, but we all must engage in them if we truly want to live in a just and equitable world. I am assuming that you want the same thing given your organization’s apologies after numerous missteps and its attempts to get things right.
I will share that we struggle with similar conversations in education. It is difficult for some folks to engage in discussions about how schools overwhelmingly and purposefully suspend and expel Black males, and exclude students of color from gifted and talented programs. It is difficult to point a finger back at oneself and ask, “How have I been complicit?”
We haven’t come up with all of the answers, but we know that we have a problem. Many of my colleagues in education look to research and experts to help inform our decisions. Do we have it right yet? Nope, but we continue in the discussion no matter how difficult it becomes. Do we always agree with each other? Absolutely not, but what we have agreed NOT to do is agree to disagree. You see, we find that this does little to engage in discussion and even less to move anything forward. Instead, what we have agreed to do is to continue the difficult and complex discussion and look toward solutions.
So what should you be doing? First, know that this work is lengthy, complex, and time-consuming. I am not at all suggesting that all will turn out perfectly in a day or two. However, I am asking that you begin the discussion with the right folks at the table. What can you do right now? How do you begin to come to some resolution?
- Listen to the players. Listen to the protesters. By the way, name-calling from you and or the highest office in the land will do little good for anyone and it should be embarrassing to you and your organization.
- Discuss what the protest is about, not how the players are protesting. The players have been clear but you have NOT been listening. Discuss the focus of the protest— social injustices against Black males, cultural incompetency, racism, and institutionalized racism.
- You cannot lead the discussion. You don’t have the expertise. If you have never engaged in thoughtful and reflective discussions about race, then you are not the right person to lead the discussion. However, you, the organizational leaders, NEED to be present during and IN the discussion. These discussion should include owners, the commissioner, players, coaches, front office personnel, etc.
- Simply calling someone who is a person of color is not the answer. We have all witnessed what occurred when you all tried that route. Also finding the lone person of color to co-sign a prepared statement that you have sent and should rescind is problematic. We have witnessed that several times as well. I needn’t call any names.
- Remember that racism will not go away by changing a rule to silence your employees.
Ultimately, the players are asking for social justice. That’s not a bad thing, in fact I would bet that most of the folks who walk this earth want the same thing. In fact, many organizations have admitted that they need help. However, we are not all in the same place in terms of racial consciousness and cultural competency and some folks are in complete and utter denial that any problems exist.
However, if folks are not talking to each other and the fear of the discussion is so great that it never happens, then little will change. You have a great responsibility. As you know, an athletic platform is powerful and the NFL has one of the biggest platforms in the world.
So please, get it right.
Dr. Robin L. Hughes is the executive associate dean and associate professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies – Student Affairs Higher Education at Indiana University Indianapolis.