Ever since Colin Kaepernick sat and then later started kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, the backlash and reaction from the NFL, its fans and the political world generated a substantial amount of noise and controversy. On the contrary, the NBA has continued to prosper and go without notable issues regarding social justice and protest with a somewhat restrictive rule regarding the national anthem. Nonetheless, the two professional leagues couldn’t further apart when it comes to a consensus on what athletes should or shouldn’t be able to on an international stage to protest social justice. The persisting lack of trust and agreement between the NFL and its players leads athletes to feel the need to protest and at the same time know their protest will likely generate substantial media and league backlash. Not to mention it could potentially end their career in the NFL (Graziano).
In response to players’ national anthem protests the NFL generated a rule that didn’t satisfy the players and consequently multiple coaches said they wouldn’t reprimand their players for kneeling because they don’t agree with the league rule. The rule, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said was “unanimous”, received backlash from owners soon after its announcement. It “requires players to stand if they are on the field during the performance but gives them the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer”(Seifert and Graziano). San Francisco 49ers owners Jed York announced his difference of opinion just hours after the NFL released its response to the anthem protests. Furthermore, New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson said, he’ll never fine a player who violates the rule (Graziano).
The owners’ disagreement is fueled primarily from the fact that this “unanimous” rule doesn’t address the athlete’s desire to use their elevated platform within sports to be an advocate for social change. In The Guardian NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about how individual accolades were a secondary goal in his mind to using his status as an athlete to stimulate discussion about social issues. “But that wasn’t my only goal. The even greater significance those records had to me then, and has to me even more now, is in providing a platform to keep the discussion of social inequalities – whether racial, gender-related, or economic – alive and vibrant so that we may come together as a nation and fix them” (Abdul-Jabbar). Remaining in the locker room during the anthem does nothing to advance the goals of athletes who kneel as a way to try and shed light on our nation’s pitfalls.
NFL players feel “disposable” and misrepresented by the league and thus feel the need to protest (Graziano). Any solid relationship requires trust, and when you have players like Kaepernick, who essentially had to sacrifice his football career because he advocated for change, that hurts players’ belief in the NFL as an organization to accurately represent its athletes. If we take a look the “I Can’t Breathe” protest in the NBA, we can see that both kneeling and the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts are protesting essentially the same issue: police brutality specifically against African Americans. NBA stars such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant wore the shirts in pregame warm ups back in 2014. The “I Can’t Breathe” shirts reference the final words of Eric Garner, an African American horticulturist, uttered before dying from suffocation after an NYPD officer put him in a choke hold while arresting him (The Guardian) and (Adande). No fines or reprimands were handed out to any of the players who wore the shirts in pregame warm ups. Furthermore, according to Steve Ginsburg of ESPN Des Moines, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he supports players voicing their opinions on social issues (Ginsburg).
A statement like the one made by Silver following a form of social protest further aligns the NBA with its players and strengthens the belief and trust the players have that they are properly represented by the league. On the contrary, NFL players are forced to live in fear of losing the opportunity to play football if they were to participate in a social justice protest. Kaepernick is a prime example of how negative backlash from the NFL and especially President Trump endorsement of the rule, framed the former 49ers quarterback as “anti-America” or “anti-military, which has nothing to do with what he’s protesting.
The difference between the two leagues is that the NBA prioritizes its players and their representation, whereas the NFL feels separate from its players and consequently there’s a trust shortage which has created a contentious relationship between the league and its athletes.