HomeNFLThe loss of NFL players’ collective voice

The loss of NFL players’ collective voice


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LAS VEGAS — Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes put his signature on the season and his stamp on posterity Sunday, as he led the Chiefs to their second consecutive Super Bowl victory, a 25-22 win in overtime against the San Francisco 49ers. At age 28, Mahomes has won three championships and established himself as the premier quarterback of his generation.

Sunday’s game marked the four-year anniversary of the Super Bowl LIV matchup between these same teams. The Chiefs’ 31-20 victory in that game marked the beginning of the Mahomes era. The greater significance is that game marked the beginning of a tumultuous stretch when NFL players, especially the league’s Black players, found their collective voice.

But in the intervening years as the NFL’s profits have soared and with no explosive issues for player to rally around, those voices so strong a mere three years ago have gone silent. The questions I wanted answered during Super Bowl week were how did NFL players lose their voice, how were those voices compromised and will the players ever regain their collective voice?

At the beginning of Super Bowl week, I asked Mahomes if he had become comfortable using his ever-expanding platform to take stands and support causes. Celebrities can become prisoners of their popularity for fear of alienating fans by taking stands and staking out unpopular positions.

The best bet is to stay neutral, which of course defeats the point of having a platform.

“You want to always stand behind what you believe in and what your beliefs are. Hopefully those are the right values, but you also want to have your personal life and keep things to yourself,” Mahomes said. “You must find that right spot to use your platform in the right way that you believe can help not only yourself but the world.”

There was a period between 2016 and 2020 when NFL players seemed to have found their collective voices. This was a period when team owners were forced to understand that when its largely Black labor force was unified, when players marched in lockstep, concessions had to be made.

The movement started in August 2016 when quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, began to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustice, police violence and economic inequities. In all my years of being around the National Football League and watching the league constantly outmaneuver the players’ union, I had never seen team owners as discombobulated as they were between 2016 and 2017. This is when many of the league’s Black players turned their focus from the playing field to issues of police violence, systemic racism and injustice that plagued the Black community for decades.

Mahomes became part of that vocal player’s contingent.

He entered the league in 2017 and assumed center stage on Feb 2, 2020, when he led Kansas City to a Super Bowl victory over San Francisco 49ers. His ascent was also the beginning of a tumultuous awakening which began in January 2020 when basketball icon Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others perished in a helicopter crash.

Ahmaud Arbery was slain in Georgia by three white men in February 2020. The coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to shut down in March. Soon we all had to shelter in place and the economic inequities and disparities that pushed Kaepernick to kneel became exposed.

In March 2020, Louisville Police killed Breonna Taylor, then in May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s chilling murder was captured on video and the world was able to see that police violence in the Black community was not fiction, but a persistent reality of daily life.

What Kaepernick protested in 2016 was real.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (left) is pressured by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (right) during Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The year 2020 was an awakening for many Black athletes. Many realized that they had been so coddled by white teams and leagues, that they had become removed from the realities of their communities.

The awakening was cumulative: Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by George Zimmerman in 2012 inspired LeBron James and the Miami Heat to take a public stand; The killing of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in 2014 inspired St. Louis Rams players to publicly demonstrate inside the stadium. Floyd’s public execution brought it all together; Black athletes in the world most popular sports league, the NFL, had had enough.

Mahomes recorded a video that included other young stars of the day: Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Odell Beckham Jr., Deshaun Watson, demanding that the league allow players to peacefully protest.

In October 2017, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones warned Cowboys players that they wouldn’t play if they did not respect the flag during the playing of the national anthem. “If you do not honor and stand for the flag in the way that a lot of our fans feel that you should, then you won’t play,” Jones said. The league sided with then-President Donald Trump who exhorted owners during a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, to fire any “son of a b—-” who refused to stand for the national anthem. In 2018, NFL owners announced, through commissioner Roger Goodell, that players who did not stand during the playing of the national anthem would be fined by the league.

The 2020 video, “Stronger Together,” was a powerful rebuke to the league. The players demanded that the NFL listen to players condemn systemic racism and the oppression of Black people. They wanted the league to admit it had been wrong to silence players’ voices. The video ended with the players saying in unison: “We assert our right to peacefully protest.”

On cue, the NFL’s unrivaled PR machine responded, producing a video of its own with commissioner Roger Goodell doing everything the players had asked: he condemned racism and the systemic oppression of Black people. He admitted that the league was wrong not to have listened to players and to have tried to silence protests. Finally, Goodell said the NFL believed that Black lives mattered.

For many, this was a seminal moment when players recovered their voices. But for Malcolm Jenkins this is when the players movement really died.

I spoke with Jenkins during Super Bowl week at an event promoting his book “What Winners Won’t Tell You: Lessons from a Legendary Defender.”

In Jenkins’ view, the young players had fallen into a trap.

“Part of the reason players were so galvanized at that point in time is because we were being challenged by the league; you had owners, you had Trump challenging us,” he said.

Referring to the Mahomes-led younger players, Jenkins said, “These guys came out and they said they wanted the commissioner to come out and say he made a mistake and that Black Lives Matter. And he did that overnight,” Jenkins said. “But what that did was, he took away the opposition by the players, and I think that has quelled the movement more than anything. It’s like how you continue to fight when the league is not the opponent?”

This was stunning, almost counterintuitive, perspective by Jenkins — a two-time Super Bowl champion who spent 13 seasons in the NFL.

I admitted to Jenkins that I felt he and his group were responsible for killing the movement.

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins (center) raises his fist as he stands during the national anthem before a game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on Sept. 10, 2017, in Landover, Maryland.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

In 2017, Jenkins co-founded the Players Coalition with Anquan Boldin. The coalition was founded at the peak of player protest with the intent of engaging professional athletes, coaches and owners across leagues to improve social justice and racial equality in the United States. The coalition focused on four key pillars: police and community relations, criminal justice reform, education and economic advancement.

Ultimately, the Coalition became the bargaining unit with the NFL to stop the protests. In 2018, the Coalition accepted $90 million from NFL team owners to fund what the NFL called Inspire Change, designed to fund various social justice initiatives. Effectively, the money was designed to get players to stop protesting and it did.

Shortly after the deal was completed in December 2017, Jenkins announced that he would no longer raise his fist during the playing of the national anthem before games.

For me, that was a straight line: Protest. Hush money. End of protest. But Jenkins said he felt the movement was already fizzling out and that is why the Coalition accepted the NFL’s millions.

“At that point in time, one of the main reasons we even moved in that direction with the league is because we felt that the movement dying,” he said. “It was basically living off the protests. Kaepernick was no longer in the league. The amount of protest by players was dwindling by that time. So, the next move was, how do we continue to work and not let it die?

“It wasn’t comfortable for us, but when you got the look at the cards on the table, we came not to validate our own kind of egos. We came to help people. This was an opportunity for us to help people or do nothing. We thought it was our obligation; we couldn’t leave those type of resources on the table.”

I still found it fascinating that Jenkins felt that it was not the Coalition accepting hush money from NFL owners that killed the movement but younger players who compelled the NFL to issue what he saw as an empty apology.

“I think that was a big distraction,” he said. “It became the players against the NFL. The NFL is not the creator of racism, they are not the creators of systems we’re trying to dismantle. The two things we wanted from the league was their money so that we could effectuate change and their platform so we could talk about the work on the largest stage in the country. We secured those two things.”

And the league secured their silence.

Will players regain their voices? Jenkins said he didn’t think players ever lost their voice.

“We’ve never lost the voice. I think one of the Achilles heels of relying on athletes to be out there is that we are very limited in our abilities to effectuate change,” he said. “There are so many of us who, once we retire or change cities, all of a sudden your movement is falling.

“I do think there needs to be a challenge to this younger group to make sure that even with Inspire Change and all of the messaging the league is putting out there, they continue to show up in their communities. It’s not really about what the league is doing, its more about what’s happening in their community.”

At a Players Association forum during Super Bowl week, I asked a couple members of the NFLPA’s executive committee how the period between 2016 and 2020 had galvanized and empowered players as never before. Michael Thomas, a safety with the Miami Dolphins in 2016 and 2017 who knelt during the national anthem, said he had been invigorated.

“While everybody wasn’t willing to take that step of taking a knee the same way Colin was, they knew something in our country happened that we feel is wrong,” he said. “It affected us, and we wanted to use our voice to say, ‘Hey, something needs to be done.’ And that was galvanizing; it was huge.”

Thomas said players felt for the first time they had power.

“Because ownership came to use and said, ‘Hey, what do y’all want to do to try to get this negative heat off of us? What changes do we need to make? What kind of concessions do we need to give here?’ ” Thomas said. “That kind of opened up our eyes as players, and our membership and our union said, ‘Hey, we can make changes. We can now use our voices and our power as players and our membership to try to create changes in this league.’ ”

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Calais Campbell (center) kneel during the national anthem prior to the game at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 28, 2020, in Baltimore.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Calais Campbell, a 16-year veteran who was with the Arizona Cardinals in 2016, recalled having unprecedented conference calls with team owners. “We were on the phone with a bunch of owners having a direct real conversation for the first time ever, and it was powerful,” he recalled. “And you can hear how opinionated they were at the beginning. And then after hearing us and then realizing this is something the players really care about and then making change, it was beautiful in a sense. And it goes to show that when we’re united and we really feel passionate about something, change will follow suit.”

Last month, the NFL extended its partnership with the Players Coalition by committing $15 million over the next five years. Depending on your point of view, this allows the Coalition to do its work or it assures that there will be no more protests by the rank and file. Contentment leads to complacency.

For all the league’s talk about all its social justice initiatives, player know the league blackballed Kaepernick.

“A lot of times when you speak up against NFL, you put your job at risk,” Campbell said. “So, it’s kind of hard.”

With a crucial election cycle upcoming and so many issues on the horizon, the players voices are needed now more than ever. There needs to be another galvanizing moment.

“I’m pretty positive something like that will happen again,” Cambell said. “When there are 2,000 people, it’s tough to get everybody on the same page, but I do think that we are strongest when we are unified and on the same page.”

I hope the players rediscover their voices sooner rather than later. Perhaps Mahomes can be the catalyst.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.

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