If Athletes Want to Force Real Change, They Need to Stop Playing

A scene from week one of the NFL. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The world of sports culture has changed so dramatically during the pandemic that even cataloguing all the transformation is a head-spinning exercise. We have seen sports teams with the names of Black people killed by police on the back of their jerseys; every major sports commissioner utter the words “Black Lives Matter”; college athletes using their voices to speak on matters of both social justice and their own rights; hundreds of NASCAR drivers stand aside a Black driver in support of the banning of the Confederate flag; and, in one truly unprecedented moment, sports teams in the MLB, NHL, WNBA, and NBA all, one day, simply refusing to play until their concerns over police violence and other matters were heard and dealt with. Any one of these events would have been earthshaking on its own; taken together, they felt like a seismic shift in the way sports are played, viewed and commoditized in this country. This was sports as an enterprise that was centered around social awareness and justice. It felt like a moment that would change everything.

Then the NFL season began last weekend, and it became clear that the league, which has been at the very center of the culture wars for the entire Trump presidency, was simply going to chug along like it always does. For 20 years, American sports have followed the lead of the NFL, which is to say they have followed the money. Television contracts, endorsement opportunities, cultural impact — the NFL takes the biggest bite, and everyone else gobbles up what’s left. (The NFL made more than $16 billion in revenue last year; that’s almost as much as the MLB and the NBA combined.) The financial edge gives football an outsize role in other matters. And if the first weekend of play is any indication, the boomlet of sports protests is already starting to abate.

There were undeniable nods to the movement. The NFL put league-approved “social justice” slogans like “End Racism” and “It Starts With Us” in the end zones, it played “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called Black national anthem before kickoff, it pushed its “It Takes All of Us” slogan during commercials. And six teams stayed in the locker room for the anthems, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson took a knee during the anthem, and Patriots quarterback Cam Newton wore “SAY THEIR NAMES!” on his cleats.

But no one on the field or off was, in fact, saying their names. If you were watching on television — and, other than in Kansas City and Jacksonville, that was the only way you could — the games likely didn’t feel the slightest bit different from any other NFL Sunday. (Particularly with the pumped-in crowd noise, which is becoming so natural I almost prefer it to the real thing now. If you watch the enormously popular NFL RedZone channel, which just zips from game to game and doesn’t focus on crowd reaction shots, you would have no idea the stands were empty at all.) The only moment from week one that felt like the NFL attempting to connect to the movements of the spring and summer came when, before the Thursday-night Chiefs-Texans game, players from both teams, including stars Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson, linked arms and came to midfield in a show of unity … and were subsequently booed by the smattering of Chiefs fans in the stands in Kansas City. The NFL didn’t try anything like that again the rest of the weekend. The NFL is nothing if not television-conscious, and it has learned that unless players do some sort of in-game protest — a difficult thing to do in sports that don’t have helmets covering everyone’s faces — anything they do that isn’t in play is easily obscured or sidelined. (The only reason I knew about Newton’s cleats was because of journalists at the stadium and Newton bringing them up at a press conference.) And the rest of the week one games, because of the tight television window, presented no real opportunity for a big “show of unity” moment; after all, the games were starting. There were no no viral displays of protest, nothing with even the slight power of the video that forced the hand of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell back in June. Heck, you couldn’t even see the words “Black Lives Matter” anywhere. If you wanted any hint of the revolutionary sports moment, as The Nation’s Dave Zirin pointed out, you needed to change the channel to tennis.

Tellingly, many of the white allies who spoke up during the summer were awfully quiet. While Colts coach Frank Reich kneeled during the national anthem, players like Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who made a big production last month about how he planned to kneel — he said he didn’t care if he lost fans because of it — changed his mind and backed off in week one, claiming that following through would “only create more division or discussion about the gesture, rather than be a solution toward our country’s problems.” Remember when Drew Brees stepped in it back in June, saying he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag” and, to apologize for his misstep, not only sided with his Black teammates but called out President Trump’s “divisive rhetoric”? Well, he ended up standing during the anthem, too. (He was wearing a “SAY HER NAME” shirt during warm-ups, but you don’t get to watch warm-ups on television.) Again: If you were not in the stadium — and none of you were — you would have thought nothing was different than any other Sunday.

You can see the results in the coverage, as well. On Tuesday, the day after the first weekend ended, every single story was about on-field news and on-field news only. Even Defector, the new, terrific site from the former Deadspin crew, has covered the NFL mostly straight; its NFL stories include ones about the Eagles’ being overrated, a choking kicker, and Joe Burrow making a weird face. The point is not that ESPN and Defector won’t cover NFL protests or controversy; they both surely will. The point is that the first weekend did not in fact give them much to cover. The NFL made the protests, such as they were, a side story; it took the biggest story in sports in 2020 and muffled it with empty slogans, rampant commercialism, and the inherent appeal of the games themselves. The NFL has been involved in enough controversies over the last decade to learn how to evade them, at least temporarily. Even the president’s limp jabs at football at a Nevada rally over the weekend didn’t register. The NFL is dancing between the raindrops again. Remember Colin Kaepernick? The athlete we all credit with launching this movement, one the NFL resisted until it was savvy public relations not to do so? He’s still angry with the league and, like Eric Reid, his fellow player-activist, still blackballed. But no one’s talking about that. They’re talking about the games. Which is all the NFL wants.

It raises the question: If player protests can’t break through to the biggest sport in the country, how do they make their voices heard? There may be a lesson in NBA players’ actions last month. When the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to go through with a playoff game in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting, the entire sports world stopped. The walkout caused a major ruckus and, briefly, led to some changes, including commitments from owners to use arenas as voting hubs. But the very next day, NBA players got together and decided they wanted to finish the season after all, And what has happened since then? Fans and the public have mostly moved on. The problem is not that the players boycotted their games to force change; the problem is that they came back to play before the NBA owners and the sports-fan public started feeling any real heat. Nets guard Kyrie Irving took considerable blowback in the spring when he argued that the NBA players should not return at all, that their voices would gain more resonance and power by not showing up. Now he looks correct. If we have learned anything from the protests this summer and how quickly the sports world returned to trying to tamp down what it considers divisive messaging rather than embrace it, it’s that you have to force leagues to action—and then stay on them about it. Because if they have the opportunity to make sports fans feel more comfortable and “normal,” they will absolutely do it. If the NFL players truly want to be heard, if they want to amplify Colin Kaepernick, if they want to make some good trouble, they’re going to have to refuse to play. And they’re probably going to have to stick to that stance for a while this time. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the only thing that will make everyone listen.

Maybe it will happen this week, though probably not. Maybe it will happen after another public incident of police violence. Maybe it will — as is widely suspected — happen if President Trump somehow wins reelection. (A sports administrator told me this week that he thinks in that case, he wouldn’t be surprised if “we might not have any more sports this year.”) But the sit-outs of last month, and the surprisingly muted reaction to it, have taught us anything, it’s that if leagues and fans are given any opportunity to ignore your message and just concentrate on the games, they will do so (After all: We’re all talking only about sports again.) It looks like the only real recourse is not to play at all. Whether 2020’s sports activism is a generational sea change or just something we all look back on as another side effect of the pandemic may come down to that choice. Stopping play is the only way to make some people listen. It’s the only way athletes can truly, fully grab their attention, and hold it.

If Athletes Want to Force Change, They Need to Stop Playing