Slavery Days are Over. Why Isn’t Football?
American football is a plantation industry.
The majority-Black workforce sacrifices body and soul.
The white owners and the league make billions.
I love football.
I grew up loving it.
Because my father loved it.
He loved it because it made it possible for him to go to college. For free.
He also loved football because it taught him dignity and discipline, strength, and power. Football taught him to believe in himself, even when others did not. It taught him to push forward, through the pain and against all odds. More than anything, football pulled him out of poverty and into the American Dream.
My father grew up dirt poor in Gary, Indiana. This was not because the family was not industrious. They were. But they were Black people in a segregated place and time in America. Then, he was orphaned by the time he turned eight.
So, when a football scout for Indiana University saw my father dashing the 100 as if he were running for his life and offered up a full scholarship, my father jumped at the offer because he had been running for his life — and from it.
First, he played running back, then wide receiver, a proud Hoosier. But the education that came with it wasn’t free. Not really. My mother later said that she couldn’t bear to watch him, hit-after-hit, perfectly still on the field for long stretches— knocked out cold. He always got up, of course, and got back in the game. But we know now that he’d suffered concussion after concussion in exchange for a good education.
After he graduated he was too small to play for the NFL but went overseas to play for the Aztecas in the Mexican professional league for two years while he pursued a graduate degree in fine arts. Then he topped out, having squeezed all he could from the sport he’d grown to love. It had squeezed everything from him, too. He was 27-years-old.
This great athlete never had sons but was a feminist when it came to raising me to understand and embrace football. It was the soundtrack of our weekends, always playing on the tiny TV screen in our tiny apartment despite my mother's protestations. I grew up learning all about tackle runs, holding, and rushing-the-kicker. He inculcated me with his theories around offensive and defensive formation. He waxed on about the greats: Jim Brown, Deacon Jones, and his former IU friend and teammate, George Taliaferro, the first Black man drafted into the NFL.
It was about more than just the game.
Football proved Black men were as deserving based on pure athletic ability.
Football proved we were as good, better, or best.
As I got older, he would school me in the back office politics of the Big Game.
About the whiteness of the quarterback ranks in football and the lack of diversity amongst coaches.
Truthfully, there were times I didn’t want to hear it.
When my beloved San Francisco 49ers were playing my father’s favorite team, the New York Giants in the 1985 wild-card matchup with the 49ers’ offense held to only three points, despite gaining 362 yards, I didn’t want to hear a discourse about the talents of Randall Cunningham (the only Black NFL quarterback in 1985) a man who wasn’t even on the field. I just wanted to sit back, munch my peanuts, and enjoy The Comeback Kid pulling out another win.
But my father taught me that to truly appreciate the entire game, I had to understand Randall’s struggle.
Now that my father’s gone, I totally get where he was coming from. To watch football without any understanding of its historical or cultural context is to miss out on the richness of the experience.
Sure, I understand why people don’t want to think about this stuff. Football is our religion. But religions need reevaluation when they are built on systems of inequity and oppression.
Where is our money going? What is the sport really about? Does it speak to our values? That time for reflection is now. And the answer is, “No.”
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee in support of something more important, he paid with his career:
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. …
“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he said. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
For his quiet protest, the NFL discarded Kaepernick like yesterday’s trash; no team would sign him for any role — starter or backup — even though he easily deserved a spot based on his skill and experience.
When Kaepernick lost his football career, many Americans vowed to boycott. Some did. But most did not.
Because football is our religion.
Now, Brian Flores has an equally public and similarly ugly dispute with the NFL. The ex-Patriots Assistant Coach and former Dolphins Head Coach has filed a lawsuit that lays bare the true intent of management, as displayed in text messages higher-ups assumed he’d never see. But as Flores discovered, the “Rooney Rule” — publicly designed to diversify head coaching and senior football operations staff — was never for real.
Flores filed his lawsuit just in time for the Super Bowl. In it he details his interactions with the Dolphins, Broncos, and Giants, including an interview with the Giants for their head coaching job — an interview Flores now alleges was a sham to satisfy the Rooney Rule which requires teams to interview at least two candidates of color before filling head coaching positions. Flores says text messages mistakenly sent to him by Bill Belichick, the General Manager of the New England Patriots, tipped him to the fact that his interview with the Giants was a sham. Fed up, he sued.
There is a through-line from Colin Kaepernick’s protest to the Flores lawsuit. If you are missing it, watch this Netflix docuseries in which the former 49ers quarterback compares the NFL draft to slavery. Brian Flores invokes the same analogy in his lawsuit:
“In certain critical ways, the NFL is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation. Its 32 owners — none of whom are Black — profit substantially from the labor of NFL players, 70% of whom are Black. The owners watch the games from atop NFL stadiums in their luxury boxes, while their majority-Black workforce put their bodies on the line every Sunday, taking vicious hits and suffering debilitating injuries to their bodies and their brains while the NFL and its owners reap billions of dollars.”
Football is a religion in this country, and the Super Bowl is the collective pilgrimage we make every February. I know it’s hard to leave our religion behind. But it’s truly time to reevaluate this American religion we call football — a religion rooted in this nation’s legacy of enslavement, one that is not willing to change to truly share management and ownership power. A morally bankrupt faith is no religion at all.
My father died in 2015, after suffering for more than a decade from Parkinson’s brought on, doctors believed, by the repeated blows he’d suffered on the football field — a Black man paying a steep price to get a foothold in this country. As much as he loved the sport, I believe he would be making the hard choice to boycott Super Bowl LVI this Sunday. I think he would be leaving the faith. He would know the right thing to do. And so do I.