The NFL strives to keep politics out of football ahead of the Super Bowl, except for when it comes from billionaire owners.
As with every Super Bowl, the upcoming game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs has had quite a lead up. For two weeks, the NFL has been celebrating its own importance with award ceremonies, media days, and its yearly all-star game—the Pro Bowl.
But there’s a marked lack of reflection amongst all of this self-congratulating.
To say the NFL has had some problems over the past few years would be an understatement. The league’s hostility to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling led to a lawsuit, while his protest provoked a reaction from Donald Trump. A wave of domestic violence and violence against women continues to be ignored. CTE and head injuries keep harming past players while causing youth participation rates to decline.
And that’s just part of the story — there are certainly more issues out there. Yet somehow the league is financially stronger than ever. Owners keep making money hand over fist, and values of NFL teams keep skyrocketing to exorbitant levels.
Amidst all of this controversy, the league and team owners demand players stay “nonpolitical.” A policy enacted in 2018 forced players to stand for the anthem, aiming to stifle the kneeling protest started by Kaepernick. Instead, the league released a “social justice” platform created in the wake of the anthem protests, counting on a partnership with Jay-Z and Roc Nation to strengthen that initiative in what they’d consider an apolitical manner.
This is just an attempt by the owners and the league to have their cake and eat it too. They expect Black players to keep quiet and stay “nonpolitical” while inventing condescending policies meant to simultaneously silence and assuage them. Meanwhile billionaire owners are free to run rampant and be as political as they want.
This was most apparent when Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross reportedly hosted a fundraiser for Trump at his Hamptons home. According to OpenSecrets.org, owners of 26 of the 32 NFL teams have donated to political campaigns – overwhelmingly Republican ones – in the past decade. And while the fundraiser got Ross removed from the league’s social justice working group, the NFL still handed Ross the ultimate financial privilege of hosting the Super Bowl.
Owners have also made a habit out of co-opting political statements of players, perhaps most obviously after Trump used profanity to call for kneeling NFL players to be fired. The weeks after that were marked by a seemingly unified front of owners, players, and coaches standing up against this affront on the campaign trail. Owners like Jerry Jones kneeled on the field with players, even after previously criticizing the protest.
This is where the problem lies. NFL owners, like most incredibly wealthy individuals, love to assert their political power for their own personal gain. They donate to campaigns, host fundraisers, and mingle with the politically powerful. In return, some are even rewarded with ambassadorships, like Jets owner and major Republican donor Woody Johnson, who is now the ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Those same owners use the political statements of players when they work to their benefit, like they did when they kneeled after Trump’s comments. Owners did the calculus, saw that appearing to support their players’ right to protest was a net positive for them, and then turned around and enacted an anthem policy that limits that same right to . A similar stifling comes from their support to Republicans, who endorse this policy.
It’s an aggressive approach to take, but is perhaps unsurprising given the almost all-white, elderly, and male demographics of ownership. Plenty of players have described the relationship between owners and players in the terms of a “plantation mentality,” and it’s not hard to see why. Players are expected to shut up and play without using their platform to speak out on issues—unless, of course, those issues further a right-wing point of view.
Athletes speaking out against racial injustice should be the least of the league’s worries. The NFL could spend its time combatting the scourge of sexist violence that, given the recent sexual assault allegations against former star Antonio Brown, is still as under-addressed as ever. It could also address the dangerously understudied head injuries that kill retired NFL players every year.
I’m not holding out hope for the NFL, however, and not just because the league made Maroon 5 the halftime show of an Atlanta Super Bowl. Their lack of reflectiveness is unparalleled.