This NFL Thing

One thing that’s been in the news lately is this whole “Trump vs. the National Football League” thing. In brief – some NFL (and NBA) players, starting with Colin Kaepernick last year, started protesting police brutality against people of color by kneeling instead of standing at attention during the playing of the national anthem before their respective matches. For reasons known only to himself, the president of the United States took issue with this, and, in very publicly berating them, transformed the whole thing from a controversial but peaceful protest into a national scandal that is now getting TONS more attention than it would’ve if Trump had left it alone to take its course.

Now, here’s something you should know about me – I am NOT a football fan. I don’t like the game, I especially don’t like the culture surrounding the game, and as far as I’m concerned, the Super Bowl happens every four years, lasts for a year and a half, and ends with the president being elected. So when I was asked to look into the historical context of these protests, that meant starting from the ground up. Like, literally the ground. As in, who knew the NFL had two conferences of teams, as opposed to one big pool that played each other in a pre-determined round robin tournament? Not me, apparently. What this means is, a bit more of my research on this topic was sourced from Wikipedia than I’d like, largely because I had close to 100 years of basic football knowledge to catch up on before getting to anything interesting, like how we got to this particular moment in our political and sporting lives.

But anyway…. Historical context for NFL anthem protests. Here we go.

First, the basics. The (first) pre-cursor to the NFL we all know and love was founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, although it was quickly renamed the National Football League in 1922. Unlike other professional sports leagues of the time, it was racially integrated at its inception, with teams consisting of white, black, Native American, and Hispanic players. Insofar as I can tell, this was because because football was relatively small and unpopular at the time, and league managers were willing to accept any players they could get their hands on, regardless of race. But it wouldn’t be 20th century America without an unhealthy dose of systemic racism, so it should come as no surprise that football re-segregated in 1933, when all the black players were mysteriously disappeared from the game. Although there were no official rules on the books regarding this change, all points agree that there was some sort of secret pact between the team owners of the time to accept only white players, and that that decision was instigated by the arrival of the racist owner of everyone’s favorite racistly-named team – George Preston Marshall of the Washington Redskins.

And then World War II happened, and the country slooooooowly started to change. Pro football was officially reintegrated in 1946, when the then-Cleveland Rams wanted to move from their small stadium in Cleveland to the much larger and fancier Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The deal was all set to go through, until three black sports writers – Halley Harding of the Los Angeles Tribune, Abie Robinson of the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle, and Herman Hill of the Pittsburgh Courier – argued that, because the Coliseum was built with federal funds and the Rams were a solely white team at the time, this move would be unconstitutional under – I kid you not – Plessy v. Ferguson. You know, the 1896 Supreme Court case that enshrined the principle of “separate but equal” into our country’s jurisprudence until it was overturned in Brown v. Board of Ed (1954). As a con law nerd, I love the brilliance of their argument – that if all-white teams could play at the Coliseum, Los Angeles would have to build a separate (but equal) stadium for taxpayers of color to attend… or integrate the NFL, of course. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to host a major league sports team (or, I assume, build an entirely unnecessary second stadium), LA city leaders negotiated with Rams leadership to allow black players to try out, and even named UCLA star Kenny Washington – a local football hero who was somehow never offered a position on any of the major league teams – as specifically deserving of a tryout. The Rams agreed, and eventually signed Washington and one other black player (Woody Strode), thus becoming the first (re-)integrated NFL team. The rest of the league was slow to join, but by 1952, all teams except for (you guessed it) George Preston Marshall’s Redskins had at least one black player. Eventually he too succumbed to pressure from no less than the Kennedy Administration, and by 1962, the Redskins signed Bobby Mitchell, and were integrated as well.

But if you thought it was smooth sailing from there on, you would be wrong. Although the NFL was theoretically integrated on paper, black players faced all sorts of discrimination, including but not limited to unofficial quotas on numbers of black players (enough to look like a team was following the rules, not enough that the white players were outnumbered or outshined), and teams routinely stacked black players into the same positions (thus ensuring that while you might have a number of people of color on your team, you never actually had to field all or any of them at once). It was similarly unheard-of to field or hire a black quarterback in the NFL. One New York Times article I read put it very succinctly: while teams slowly succumbed to pressure to hire people of color, “no black player was considered smart enough or leader enough to be the ‘field general.’”

Now, remember how pro football is broken up into two conferences? Most of the teams in the American Football Conference (as opposed to the National Football Conference) started as members of the American Football League (as opposed to the National Football League, which is what we’ve been primarily talking about up to this point). The AFL was founded in 1960, and remained the primary competition to the NFL until 1969, when the two leagues merged into the one big conglomerate we have today. Unlike the NFL at the time, the AFL was much more racially diverse, having made a point of recruiting football stars from historically black colleges who were categorically passed over by the NFL. While the AFL was host to the first black placekicker and starting quarterback – Gene Mingo and Marlin Briscoe, respectively, both of the Denver Broncos – it was also the site of one of the most well-known protests in modern football history, which took place at the height of the league’s fame and fortune at the 1965 All-Star Game.

That year, the All-Star Game, in which the top players from all teams played each other in an exhibition-style game for a cash prize (slightly more for the winning side than the losing side), was scheduled to take place in New Orleans, a city where segregation and Jim Crow still reigned following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although “special arrangements” were made by AFL and city officials to theoretically ensure that black players receive equal treatment (or at the very least, were allowed inside) at prearranged restaurants, cabs, clubs, and hotels for the week leading up to the game, black players “went off on their own” and were refused service by other cabs and clubs who weren’t specifically informed that they were to accept business from the football all-stars. Led by Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills, the black players slated to play that year (22 people out of the 70 between both teams) decided to boycott the city and the game, and unanimously made plans to leave the city five days before the game was to be played. When informed of their decision, AFL commissioner Joe Foss decided to move the game from New Orleans to a smaller stadium in Houston, which already hosted an AFL team and which was much less segregated than its predecessor.

None of the newspaper clippings I’ve found from this period give any indication of why Foss made that call, so I cannot report whether it was because of financial stakes in the game – which doesn’t seem to be the case, as it was certainly an expensive move on the part of the AFL and especially on the part of game promoter David F. Dixon of the New Orleans Sports and Cultural Activities Foundation – or because it was the right thing to do. The articles do give a clear sense, though, of the disdain directed at these players by Dixon, who was in charge of the special arrangements for the athletes and seemed offended that his specially forewarned activities weren’t enough, and by New Orleans Taxicab Bureau director Nicholas A. Tedesco, who defended individual taxicab drivers’ rights to accept whomever they so chose, thank you very much. It also seems that the players themselves were unaware of the fact that special arrangements had to be made so they would be accepted by the city of New Orleans. When he called Foss to inform him of the black players’ decision to boycott, Ernie Warlick told the commissioner, “if we’d been told beforehand that things had been set up for us specially – restaurants and cabs – the shock would have been less. As it was, our treatment was a real slap in the face…”

Regardless of how it was received by the city of New Orleans (spoiler alert: poorly), the boycott worked, the game was moved to Houston, and the AFL lived to play another day. When the AFL and the NFL merged in 1969, the more liberal (aka, less racist) hiring practices of the AFL transferred as well, and started us on the path to the NFL makeup we see today. According to one survey (of questionable scientificness, but I’ll take what I can get) taken in 2014, 68% of all players in the NFL were black. In spite of that, black players held only 14% of all quarterback positions (as compared to the 64% of all quarterback positions held by white players), and were, on average, paid less than any other group. All of this is particularly interesting when compared with statistics from a different article that points out that, in contrast, 83% of NFL fans in 2014 were white.

Here’s why I think all of that is relevant:

Although Colin Kaepernick may have decided to take a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police violence against black people and people of color, thus starting this particular trend, there have always been politics in football. It didn’t start with Kaepernick, or with Trump, or with anything that has happened in the last year. When the Department of Defense started paying the NFL to have their players on the field during the singing of the national anthem in 2009 as a marketing strategy for the military, that was politics in football. When then-candidate Donald Trump tried to use the pro football schedule as an excuse to reschedule or cancel two general election debates he didn’t really want to have (and to make himself look folksy, I’m sure), that was politics in football. So when Trump and his supporters make a lot of noise about how we need to get politics out of football, you know they are completely full of shit.

And then you look at the makeup of the NFL, and of the football fan base, and you look at Kaepernick – a black quarterback in a sport that even now seems reluctant to allow black players in that position and who remains unemployed by a league that has quietly declined to rehire him after his contract ran out – and you look at the people who are angry at him for, as he put it, “[not standing] up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” you realize that this isn’t really about politics in football at all, but about racism in football, in the highest reaches of our government, and everywhere in between. It is no coincidence, I think, that the national (read: white) response to these protests have been likened to the response to the civil rights movements of the 1960s – both were peaceful and specific protests led by people of color, and both made the white establishment very uncomfortable and angry.

In 1965, when then-New Orleans mayor Victor H. Schiro heard of the black players’ decision to boycott the AFL All-Star Game, he responded that he wished the players had “rolled with the punch” and stuck around to play in his city, which had “struggled sincerely not only to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but before that to reach a voluntary accommodation of the races.” He added, “we seriously question the wisdom of the peremptory actions which [the players] took to redress these alleged grievances… their reaction will only aggravate the condition they are seeking, in time, to eliminate.” All that, after Ernie Warlick, speaking to commissioner Joe Foss, went out of his way to ensure his boss that although he and his fellow players were planning to boycott, “basically we all wanted to play the game. We’re not a part of any civil rights movement or anything like that. The conditions we encountered do not necessarily represent all the people in New Orleans.” Schiro’s response: “If these men would play football in cities only where everybody loved them, they’d all be out of a job today.”

More than sixty years later, and how is Schiro’s wish that the 1965 All-Star teams had “rolled with the punches” any different from Trump’s wish that “one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, [would] say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’”? It doesn’t matter that Warlick just wanted to play football, or that Kaepernick has gone out of his way to show respect for the military, even modifying his protest at the suggestion of a Green Beret who suggested that kneeling would be better than sitting, it’s always “disrespect of our heritage.” I would direct your attention back to Schiro if you’re wondering just what heritage Trump was talking about.

So now we’re in a place where, because President Trump opened his big mouth at a (completely unrelated) campaign rally in Alabama and inserted himself into this issue by calling the (black) protesters “sons of bitches,” this whole thing has turned into a national sensation. At the start of the 2017 season, a handful of players followed in Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneeled or remained on the bench during the national anthem, to join in his silent, peaceful, understated protest against police violence. Trump got involved, and made it about respecting the flag, the military, the country, and himself. Now players from almost all the teams in the NFL are joining in the protest – some to take a stand on the original issue of police violence, most (seemingly) to protest the president himself. In some cases, coaches and team owners (almost all of them white) have joined in to show solidarity with their teams. Upping the ante to the tune of almost $250,000 of taxpayers’ money, Vice President Mike Pence flew to Indianapolis yesterday to “watch” the Colts play the San Francisco 49ers, only to walk out (in accordance with a plan laid out in advance by the president himself) as soon as players from the 49ers knelt during the national anthem. All this while the country is facing multiple hurricanes, an entire island full of US citizens without food, water, or electricity, a mass shooting, threats from North Korea, the rise and fall of various legislative agenda, and many other much bigger crises.

So here’s my opinion, which is very similar to my opinion on most of what has happened in the last, oh, eleven months or so: Nothing happens in a vacuum. Look at “this NFL thing” on its own, and it looks like a spoiled brat of a president inserting himself into a conflict that has nothing to do with him, until such time as he wants to take a long and hard look at the problem of police violence in this country. Look at it in context, and it becomes one in a long line of instances in which black football players have had to face down systemic racism in the sport and in the country and, ultimately, won. No matter how many times Trump tweets that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” I firmly believe that it will never be true.

And I, for one, am looking forward to the next real Super Bowl in 2020, when we can finally get this president out of office and elect someone else.

Epilogue: The Flag Code

I was also asked what the Flag Code has to do with all of this, and why it keeps being brought up. Here’s your answer: the Flag Code (aka Public Law 829; Chapter 806, 77th Congress, 2nd session) is a set of guidelines regarding how the American flag should be treated. While there are no penalties for violating the Flag Code – the Supreme Court made sure of that in Texas v. Johnson (1989), when it concluded that flag burning (definitely NOT allowable under the Flag Code) was a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment – it is generally considered the ultimate authority on respect for the flag.

The more that Trump tweets about how the national anthem protesters are not “respecting the flag,” the more I see the left sharing out memes about this mysterious Flag Code as a kind of retort. As the memes point out, not standing during the national anthem is NOT disrespecting the flag, but you know what isn’t so kosher? Holding the flag horizontally (see: a flag being carried around a football field before a game), using the flag as apparel (see: a drunk football fan draped in the flag, or, alternatively, a flag-bikini-clad woman), using the flag for advertising purposes (see: a can of Budweiser America beer), etc., etc., etc.

This, to me, is exactly the same thing as the hypocrisy-exposing memes directed at opponents of gay marriage stating that the bible also forbids tattoos, divorce, and eating bacon, and probably just about as effective in changing minds.

– Ariella Axelbank, 10/9/17


“22 Negroes Withdraw From A.F.L. Star Game”

“A short history of the national anthem, protests and the NFL”

“A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and the athletes who joined him”

“AFL All-Star Game Is Moved To Houston”

“AFL–NFL merger”

“American Football League”

“At Some N.F.L. Positions, Stereotypes Create Prototypes”

“Black players in professional American football”

“Donald Trump versus the NFL, explained”

“Has This Happened Before? 6 Things to Know About the History Behind NFL Protests”

“History of the National Football League”

“National Football League”

“NFL: Last sports bastion of white, male conservatives”

“Politics Has Always Had a Place in Football”

“Race Issue Shifts All-Star Game From New Orleans to Houston”

“Stephen A. Smith Points Out NFL’s Paid Patriotism Problem”

The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945

“The price tag for Pence’s trip to Indianapolis”

“The Racist Redskins”

The Racist Redskins

“The United States Flag Code”

“The Unofficial 2014 NFL Player Census”

“Three Leagues, 92 Teams And One Black Principal Owner”

Three Leagues, 92 Teams And One Black Principal Owner

“Trump Tells Pence to Leave N.F.L. Game as Players Kneel During Anthem”

“Trump’s rally for Alabama’s Luther Strange segued into a rant about kneeling football players”


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