clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The NFL Can’t Buy Its Way Out of Protests

After the league announced its plans to donate $89 million to social justice organizations in collaboration with the Players Coalition, dissenting players like Eric Reid began to question the alliance’s motives

Ringer illustration

The relationship between the NFL and its players, who overwhelmingly are black, is still a mess.

After months of kneeling, protesting, and clarifying from players, racialized outrage from vocal fans, and cyclical debates over the “appropriate” times to protest, the NFL finally budged in a way that appeared meaningful. In October, commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL owners met with the Players Coalition, a group of more than 40 players working to support social justice causes. Founded by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and retired receiver Anquan Boldin, the coalition is composed of players from teams across the league. NFL officials and Players Coalition representatives sat down to discuss matters more urgent than football: criminal justice reform and police brutality. These are the pervasive, uncomfortable real-world issues that Sundays, Monday nights, Thursday nights, and the occasional Thursday Night Football: Saturday Edition can no longer ignore, no matter who complains about politics seeping into their sports. Colin Kaepernick was not invited, and that was weird.

On Monday the league moved again, and covered an “unprecedented” amount of ground, as reported in a piece by ESPN’s Jim Trotter and Jason Reid. The NFL submitted a proposal to the Players Coalition headlined by an offer to donate “nearly $100 million” to “causes considered important to African American communities.” Nearly $100 million, in this case, is actually $89 million to be committed over seven years. Per the league’s proposal, 25 percent of the donation would go to Dream Corps, another 25 percent would go to the United Negro College Fund, and the remainder would go to the Players Coalition itself. The pledged sum of $89 million is not $100 million — it’s $11 million less, in fact — but it’s still a not-insignificant amount of money going to Good places. Or places that seem good enough. However, in twin statements released Wednesday, 49ers safety Eric Reid and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas announced their split from the coalition. Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung added that the league’s handling of player grievances was “disingenuous” and “woefully inadequate.”

A follow-up piece by Jeremy Stahl published in Slate on Thursday says that Reid described the NFL’s proposal as a “publicity stunt” meant to take pressure off of Goodell, given how badly the commissioner needs a win. This — a PR grab buried in superficial common ground — is what happened with CTE, and it’s also what happened with domestic violence, and it could happen with the protesting players’ cause. His reluctance does not constitute ungratefulness or nitpicking. Reid’s, Thomas’s, and Okung’s dissent represents an unwillingness to accept throwing money at the problem as a legitimate solution.

Even before any of the three disapproving players explained their stance, you might have been able to guess at a few reasons Reid, Thomas, and Okung no longer felt as though their interests were being represented by the coalition. For starters, simple math. For owners whose net worths range from “private jet or two” to a “collection of vintage war planes,” splitting the majority of $89 million, or even the advertised $100 million (players would be expected to donate a certain number for local causes), doesn’t amount to much. Think about it: that amount of money, amortized over seven years, between the league itself and its 32 team owners, over half of whom are billionaires. Their financial commitment comes out to roughly a couple of million dollars per club.

That’s still a greater sum than has ever been dedicated to other public causes like breast cancer awareness, which the ESPN report notes. But it does not mention how small a percentage of those Pinktober merchandise proceeds actually go to cancer research programs — little more than 8 percent. The NFL’s social cause playbook is one page thick: sustained outcry, followed by vague admission that the NFL cares, and finally a sum of money that’s meant to be exculpatory. The United Negro College Fund and Dream Corps are noble organizations, but they’re also easy, apolitical, and don’t immediately work against the systemic societal ills that players are protesting. Copwatch might. The Bronx Freedom Fund is another good idea. As is Black Lives Matter. (For his part, one out-of-work quarterback has almost completed his pledge to donate $1 million to organizations including Coalition for the Homeless, United We Dream, and Justice League NYC.)

It’s also strange but telling that the Players Coalition would have control of only half the money. The protesting players aren’t necessarily of one mind about what they hope to accomplish — or how best to go about doing it — but that they took initiative is proof positive that they should be leading the charge.

Reid was there when Kaepernick and Nate Boyer decided to make the switch from sitting to kneeling in August 2016. He’s been there since the beginning, but clarified his decision to leave the Players Coalition on Wednesday and said that his problems were with Jenkins. Reid alleges that Jenkins “kicked” Kaepernick out of the coalition and excluded the rest of the group from a few key conversations with the NFL. The league, Reid said, is trying its best to settle the long-simmering dispute as quickly and painlessly as possible. According to a Thursday Slate piece, “Jenkins told him ‘that he left the conversation [with a league official] with a strong feeling that once they made a monetary contribution, that they would expect us to stop protesting.’”

Jenkins first took umbrage with Reid’s comments:

They understood the entire scope of the plan. The last time we had conversations with [Roger] Goodell and Troy Vincent, Michael Thomas and Eric Reid were on that call. They understood the proposal. What we didn’t have was a conversation with players in the coalition based on some of the responses that we got from the league. We then talked about myself contracting Troy Vincent just to give them some updates on some of our feedback, which I did. That call did not have Mike or Eric on it. Everybody kind of agreed to that.

And then, on Thursday, Jenkins added that he wouldn’t be raising his fist during the national anthem anymore, at least not in the immediate future, according to Zach Berman of Philly.com.

I don’t anticipate demonstrating this week simply because I felt like when I started demonstrating, my whole motivation was to draw awareness to disenfranchised people, communities of color, injustices around the country, our criminal justice system. And obviously through this year and talking with the league and what they’ve kind of proposed, I feel like he has presented a bigger and better platform to continue to raise that awareness and continue to fluctuate positive change. Not only with the money that they’ve put up, because I think that’s probably the least important part of the deal, but with the resources and platform that they proposed to build. We’ve seen what they’ve done with breast cancer awareness, Salute to Service, those things. So to allocate resources to a campaign in that manner that’s bigger, I think is significant and it hadn’t been done before. So I look forward to playing a part in using that to continue to draw awareness to real people, real stories in our communities. To raise up these grassroots organizations that need support to do the work. To continue drawing awareness around solutions that people can take a part of to actually make the change that we’re going to see.

Hm.

These are all of the right words in approximately the right places. Kneeling, locking arms, and/or fist-raising were never meant to be players’ primary form of protest. It bears repeating: This proposal and the acceptance of it look, from the outside, like steps in the right direction. But the plan, as it currently exists, lays out a group of five owners, five players, and two league officials who would decide where the money would go. Again, simple math: Seven is two more than five. “If it came down to a vote, the players would lose every time,” Reid said. They — the Big, Other They, the one with say-so — could then take full control of the erstwhile movement and set it down quietly in a field somewhere, away from the viewing public.

There’s also the matter of Jenkins being a Papa John’s franchisee. Yes, that Papa John’s, the very same whose owner complained about a dip in his company’s sales and stock price, citing the protest movement. (DiGiorno Pizza said, basically, must be two market shares.)

“The NFL has hurt us,” Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter said. “We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this. … Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.”

This does not make Jenkins a double agent or mean that he is incapable of thinking critically about social justice. But you might agree, if you paused and really took stock of it, that the nature of the proposal — its size, structure, and proponents — is flawed at best. And it’s more than fine to be dissatisfied with flawed. If it helps, you can imagine the catch-all term of “social issues” as a big, rusty barbell on your chest, loaded with more plates than you can possibly lift on your own. Stopping the thing from caving in your sternum is obviously paramount, but right after that, in terms of importance, is proper form. Poor form when addressing immediate harm can hamper long-term progress. So, too, can rushing to a response simply to move on from a demanding question.

I can’t stop thinking about the lingering image from the NFL’s October meeting with the coalition: Goodell uninterested, thumbing through the newspaper, and wanting to be anywhere but there. It’s also difficult not to think of this $89 million — which comes with plenty of conditions — as hush money. How, then, should the NFL respond to these fundamental questions about the indignity shown to black lives? Being engaged beyond easy PR would be a start. As would inviting more than five players to the table, whether they opt to sit or stand.