As the NFL season kicks off in a couple of weeks, the league is trying to keep up with the national conversation around race and social justice by taking some artistic license with the football field. According to reporters, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced on a conference call Tuesday that the NFL would join other leagues by putting a social justice message on the field.
Per reports, the NFL plans to add the phrases “End Racism” and “It Takes All Of Us” to the end zones of each stadium this season.
“The NFL stands with the Black community, the players, clubs and fans confronting systemic racism. We will not relent in our work,” Goodell said.
I don’t relish my role as professional kill joy, but this has to be one of the most ineffective initiatives proposed by a league that often tries to get by with doing the least amount possible. It is a performative gesture that, whatever good intentions are behind it, accomplishes nothing, except maybe give the “stick to sports” crowd something to rail against.
The NBA, WNBA and several MLB teams made bold statements by choosing to say Black Lives Matter on their playing fields this season. By comparison, “End Racism” is a weaker, politically neutral statement. Like I’ve written before, “End Racism” is more about wishful thinking than inspiring any kind of structural change. It is the Disney version of race relations, thinking that simply hoping for an end to racism is enough. Similarly, “It Takes All Of Us” preaches unity and togetherness at a time when we should be elevating and promoting Black Lives or asking white allies to do more and to do better. As a reminder, it is not incumbent on Black people to fix the racism that they constantly face.
The NFL still has a chance to take truly meaningful actions in the anti-racism fight, but their track record is weak at best. Earlier this year, ahead of Super Bowl 54, the league collaborated with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and released two PSAs meant to tackle police shootings of black men. The PSAs are indicative of how the NFL approaches these issues. While the ads are emotionally effective, they stop short of advocating any real change, or placing blame for the shootings on the officers. What would be more meaningful, is if the league addressed the role its multi-millionaire, majority white owners play in perpetuating systemic and structural racism. Their work with the Players Coalition has donated large sums to community organizations, but this time the league’s resolve and commitment will be held to a higher standard as players, fans and viewers demand more accountability. Also, even though it’s been said plenty of times, Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job in the NFL. Until they reckon with that past behavior, it’s hard to take the league’s commitment to social justice seriously.
The league is, once again, willing to pay lip service to these messages because it realizes being pro justice is a good business practice. Like the NHL, who still have a hard time saying Black Lives Matter, the NFL is hoping to have it both ways with their vague pronouncements. By stenciling the end zones, they can be seen as keeping up with their counterparts in other sports, without having to take on the full political fallout of say something as controversial and meaningful as Black Lives Matter. By avoiding those three words, they appease the fans who still willfully misunderstand what the slogan means. This way, they maximize their audience, alienating almost no one.
By trying to play it safe, the NFL has shown that it’s committed to one thing, and that’s the bottom line.