I’ve been unofficially boycotting the NFL this season. The past two weeks have helped slightly, as there’s no longer the prospect of perfect seasons for either of my two perennial teams: the New England Patriots, who I adopted as it became apparent that I was living my entire adult life in the Boston area (the Patriot’s 18-1 Super Bowl loss to the Giants remains the one sporting event that’s almost brought me to tears), and the San Francisco 49ers, who my young brain decided was “the” NFL team as I watched them win Super Bowls during the 80s and early 90s.
Not having the time to watch many games or immediate access to the television stations that broadcast them has also made the boycott significantly easier, but a combination of factors went into solidifying my stance this year: the ongoing CTE crisis within football; the league’s incoherent and unsatisfying handling of cases of violence against women committed by its players; and the league’s handling of the protests made by its players, particularly former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That last reason might be ending as Kaepernick will reportedly work out for an undisclosed collection of teams over the weekend, presumably because there is interest in signing the veteran quarterback so that he can hop into the league this season.
Just to remind you, in case you A) don’t follow the NFL, B) just returned from a five-year voyage to outer space, or C) get all your news from Fox and Breitbart: Really good NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick launched a protest of police violence against black Americans by kneeling during the national anthem at the beginning of his football games. In his words:
Seems like a serious but pretty non-confrontational and respectful way to protest a large and important issue facing this country in a way that a lot of people will notice. Some fans became annoyed that politics were being injected into their pastime, as if playing the anthem before games in the first place was not already a political move (in recent years, the government has shelled out millions of dollars for “paid patriotism for NFL games), and a bunch of right-wing pundits and politicians LOST THEIR MINDS at the idea that a successful black man would criticize America for its treatment of other black men (and women, and children) over the past 400 years and counting (go check out the 1619 Project), including the current practice of police killing unarmed black civilians. As an unarmed black civilian who prefers to not be killed, I appreciate Kaepernick’s stance, but there are other people who think that being briefly reminded of such violence against American citizens by the state is worse than said violence itself. I’m not saying that all these people hold racist views; some merely don’t mind being in the company of those who do (fortunately, both groups have decided to wear distinctive hats that make them easy to identify).
Despite the criticism and disingenuous vitriol lobbed against them, Kaepernick and a few other players inspired by him (like former teammate Eric Reid) continued their protests and mysteriously ended up without jobs in the league. It’s become increasingly clear that the NFL and its team owners are collectively blackballing Colin Kaepernick over his kneeling stance. President Trump placed very public pressure on the NFL about the protests (and took credit for Kap being out of the NFL), fueling the false narrative that it was somehow anti-troops (um, no, it’s not) or anti-American (I am aware that the president has not read the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, but someone should Tweet him a copy of the First Amendment). NFL officials occasionally acknowledge the blackballing before being reminded that they shouldn’t say such things out loud. And the league even settled a lawsuit with Kaepernick and Reid for an undisclosed (but likely multi-million dollar) sum.
And yet, Kaepernick remains without a job for over 1000 days and counting. And while there were already a plethora of quarterbacks with jobs in the NFL despite being demonstrably less talented, less successful and, well, all-around worse than Kaepernick, a recent string of injuries has only highlighted that problem. But now that teams have finally decided to give Kap a second look, and he could conceivably end up throwing passes on Sundays before the season is over.
If Kaepernick really does return this season, I feel as if I should watch in support; after all, what good is a boycott if it is not responsive to the target giving in to the boycott’s demands? On the other hand, Kap’s return will not fix the other problems in the NFL. The domestic violence policies seem to be in flux (the Antonio Brown saga, in which my Patriots played a significant role, demonstrates that in all its messiness), which is frustrating but also gives hope that the league is trying to change things and that it might actually get it right one day – hopefully one day soon.
The problem of traumatic brain injury seems more long lasting, and barring some technological break or radical change in the way that football is played in America, it is likely to remain a chronic and ultimately deadly problem in the NFL and in the college and even high school leagues that develop players for professional football.
I long ago gave up on boxing and never got into MMA because of the brutality of those sports. I’m not squeamish by any means, but I couldn’t get behind a sport in which significant harm (not just pain, but measurable physical injury) is not only a possibility or an unfortunate side-effect of competition, but the actual goal. Think about it: concussions, which the NFL has spent untold millions of dollars trying to either mitigate or cover-up, are the literal goal of every boxing match. And although accidents occur in all aspects of life, I especially couldn’t, in good conscience, support a sport in which death is not a terrible freak occurrence but a plausible outcome of competition. It’s also why I never got into auto racing (well that and not being particularly enamored with watching cars drive in an oval).
Now, the NFL has been addressing the CTE problem, but it’s unclear whether it will actually commit to making the radical changes that would be necessary to really protect the long-term health and safety of its players – technology and rule changes, systems in which medical staffs are independent and not beholden to teams whose incentives are not often the best interests of players, and more. I’m frightened by the idea that my son would play football, which makes it hard for me to watch others sons (and brothers and cousins and fathers) play the game.
Even with all that, though, perhaps the short term victory for Kaepernick and, by extension, the cause of Black Lives Matter (which is really just the cause of black people in America and of just justice for all) is enough to temporarily suspended my boycott. But it remains to be seen if – even assuming Kaepernick returns – this actually turns out to be a victory or just window dressing. If signing Kaepernick turns out to be similar to the recent deal made it with former NFL critic and recent billionaire Jay-Z, then even Kap’s return will be more of a fig leaf than an actual solution. In that case, it doesn’t seem right to reward that type of move by returning to NFL viewership while the league patronizingly pats us on the head and continues with business as usual. So let’s see if Kaepernick returns, if he continues kneeling, and, assuming all that, if something more results from it all than “likes” from “woke” progressives, harangues from right wing politicians and hand-wringing from those in positions to make real policy changes. I might watch a Kaepernick return to see what happens, but I’ll need a lot more in terms of actual progress to remain tuned in. Until then, I always have the NBA to (*broadcasts interrupted by order of the Chinese Communist Party*) crap – I’m going to have to start following soccer, aren’t I?
You can follow Dr. Christopher Rhodes on Twitter at @PReligions, and check out his writing on Medium, Medium.firstname.lastname@example.org