In thinking about who I’d support in this weekend’s Super Bowl game, I found myself in a dilemma. Without previous loyalties to either team, I considered the thought of supporting the 49ers, a team seemingly extra-involved in the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, before considering the thought of supporting the Chiefs — a team that pays and plays Tyreek Hill, someone with allegations of abuse in his past.
I can imagine others feel similarly; perhaps their team has a player or two with a history of domestic violence, or their team has a name or mascot that needed renaming years ago. You feel complicit in calling yourself a fan of a franchise that allows what seems to be objectively immoral behavior. And you are complicit. Your support — your purchase of apparel and tickets, your tweets and retweets — provides fuel for the fire.
I expect that most of us agree that the status quo of the NFL isn’t ideal. But whose job is it to make reforms? And why are changes reasonable to expect?
To answer the first question, one can argue that the burden falls on many parties, and I think it should. As consumers, our actions certainly matter and can be an impetus for meaningful change. But our actions ultimately affect the people at the top: the owners of teams and the NFL itself. And these people in seats of power ought to act unprompted by a league boycott.
The line the NFL draws with respect to domestic violence, for example, seems almost nonexistent at times. And the line that the league draws with respect to acceptable levels of activism not only seems to protect the status quo, but also hinders societal growth.
It’s undeniable that the NFL has a significant impact on communities across the nation. Players serve as role models to younger generations, to kids just learning to throw a ball. The NFL has a duty to investigate and discipline serious allegations so that punishments actually fit the crime, and are far more severe than those received for petty offenses, like the possession of marijuana. In doing so, the league not only indicates that it does not accept such players, but also spreads the message of societal intolerance for such actions.
The NFL ought to take more authority when such instances arise. In the case of Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State released him from its program after Hill’s then-pregnant girlfriend accused him of choking and punching her. Unlike the NFL, the NCAA program took authority in reprimanding his behavior. When Hill’s fiancee made similar allegations years later that now include child abuse, police authorities found inconclusive evidence and the NFL also found inconclusive evidence in its own independent investigation. It appears the NFL took an easy road out in dismissing allegations of abusive behavior.
Some may argue that the issues which have polarized the NFL exist across all the major sport leagues and the quest for larger profits hinders accountability and social justice. Yet when we compare the league to its basketball counterpart, at least on the activism front, we frequently see NBA players and coaches proudly using their platform for political action.
Although activism in the NBA is at times met with dissenting opinions and less than enthusiastic support, the overall reception of these actions and the relative frequency with which they occur indicates a stark contrast between the NBA and the NFL. The instances in which basketball players, owners and even the league commissioner have taken a sometimes controversial stance, based on their own sense of justice or morals, forces us to acknowledge that the NFL is strides behind the NBA with respect to progressivity.
For example, when basketball players all over the league, including LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, donned “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts before a game, they showed support for Eric Garner and those affected by police brutality. Similarly, several Miami Heat players took a picture in hooded sweatshirts following the death of Trayvon Martin and years later, the Sacramento Kings partnered with Black Lives Matter Sacramento and donned shirts bearing Stephon Clark’s name.
Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem served to critique the police brutality faced by Black Americans, as well as the racism still pervasive across the nation, while also showing solidarity to affected communities — similar to the message spread by the Kings. While players and coaches in the NBA attempt to spread messages about accountability and injustice, they are largely able to do so without a fear of intense backlash from within their organization. The same cannot be argued for the NFL, considering the events that ensued since Kaepernick took the knee.
Some have written the kneeling off as a thing of the past, but we cannot move forward until the NFL moves forward. After all, many issues in the league come back to this: a seeming desire to conserve and protect the past, without questioning or analyzing who may have been hurt and who continues to be hurt by such practices.
There are numerous potential reasons for the differences between the NFL and NBA. They include differences in the median age of team owners, the rate at which team ownership changes, the racial makeup of teams, the nature of the games and the general history of the leagues.
Despite fundamental differences between the two leagues, I think it’s not only reasonable for the NFL to follow some steps that the NBA has taken, but I also think it’s necessary for team owners and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to hold players and coaches more accountable for their actions, while simultaneously encouraging players and coaches to hold other community members accountable.
While I call for the NFL to take charge of the situation, I want to return to the point about us fans and consumers of the game. If you’re a 49ers fan, a Chiefs fan or a fan of any professional football team, I encourage you to at least acknowledge the pitfalls, the issues, the wrongdoings of your team. Just as you can disagree with a decision to go for a two-point conversion, you can still be a fan and disagree with a decision made to keep or release a player; that’s you holding your team accountable.