The NFL Takes a Knee: an Update for the Black Lives Matter movement

American football boss finally admits that it was wrong to censure players who kneeled during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and racism

*Please see my disclaimer below

About 18 months ago, I wrote a blog post entitled, From stealing to kneeling, what do NFL player contracts say about “bad” behavior? That post came after some football players from the Jacksonville Jaguars were arrested here in London, for attempting to leave a nightclub without paying their £50,000 ($64,000) bar tab. The players were later released without further action from police — it was, apparently, all a big misunderstanding — but the incident was a good example of how athletes’ actions off the field are regulated by their employment contracts. The post explained that it is not only criminal acts that can lead a player to suspension from his team, or a loss of lucrative endorsements.

Morality clauses, also known as “bad behaviour clauses“, can seek to prohibit a player a wide range of perfectly legal activities such as smoking, gambling, or making political remarks on social media. Controversially, up until now, kneeling as a form of silent protest during the playing of the American national anthem fell into that category. Whilst kneeling during the Star Spangeld Banner is by no means illegal, players doing so were widely condemned, and their actions were seen to bring the league into disrepute. But in a video posted on yesterday (Friday 5 June) the National Football League’s commissioner Roger Goodell said players should be allowed to protest during the national anthem as rallies against racial discrimination continue.

The Kneeling Movement

In 2016, star quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Fransisco 49’s started the trend of protesting police brutality and racial inequality, by kneeling during the national anthem at the start of American football games. Other players soon joined in, much to the ire of President Trump and much of the general public. The league is seen in many respects as an emblem of “traditional American values”, where love for one’s team goes hand in hand with love for one’s country.

With its “patriotic” base in mind, the NFL implemented a rule that for almost a year banned kneeling during the national anthem. Although that rule was later revoked, in 2018 the NFL announced that all players who were are on the field when the national anthem is heard before a game must either stand, or remain in the locker room. It left open the possibility of teams fining its players. As for Kaepernick, he was eventually deemed the most hated player in the NFL and blackballed, with many commentators acknowledging that his peaceful protests ruined his football career. He was called a “traitor” with no respect for the American military, and far worse. Last year, Kaepernick and other players reached a settlement with the NFL regarding their collusion lawsuit, although the details remain subject to a confidentiality agreement.

George Floyd

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd, who was in handcuffs at the time, repeatedly said “I can’t breathe”, and lay motionless for his final three minutes spent under Chauvin’s knee. At first, authorities claimed his death was due to “underlying health conditions”, but subsequent autopsies determined the manner of Floyd’s death to be homicide.

Hours after Floyd’s death, peaceful crowds began to gather in the city, with participants holding posters and shouting phrases such as “Justice for George”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Black Lives Matter”. However, following vandalism of stores, police escalated their response by using riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades on the protesters. This, in turn, led some people (not all of whom were protestors) to throw stones at officers and commit further looting and vandalism.

While these protests began as a means to demand justice for George Floyd, they quickly galvanised further demonstrations around the country against systemic police brutality and racism. The names of other Black Americans recently killed have also been invoked: Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown Jr, and Trayvon Martin are just some. These protests — called “riots” by some — soon spread beyond Minnestota to 100 cities and, by 30 May, 12 states had called up the National Guard.

Photo by Koshu Kunii

Black Lives Matter goes mainstream

Despite President Trump digging in his heels and demanding a return to “law and order,” over the following days the Black Lives Matter protests showed no signs of abating. Even those not at the protests turned to social media to support the movement, with celebrities and politicians likewise making public statements to condemn racism. Notably, millions of people vowed not to post on their Instagram accounts on “Blackout Tuesday”, sharing only a single black square instead. The hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM trended on Twitter, and donations to charities like the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the George Floyd Memorial Fund flooded in.

Generally speaking, companies and retailers will try to remain apolitical during a crisis or social movement, to reduce the risk of alienating part of their consumer base. However, many brands and firms have joined in to voice their support for this most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, such statements must hold up to scrutiny: messages of solidarity are by no means sufficient to combat the disease of institutionalised racism.* Nevertheless, this level of corporate commentary on racism and civil rights has not been seen in decades ⁠— if ever.

Several days ago, a group of NFL players put together a video, shown below. “It’s been 10 days since George Floyd was brutally murdered,” the clip begins. “How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” It continues with a powerful appeal to the organisation: “We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. So on behalf of the NFL, this is what we, the players, would like to hear you state: ‘We condemn racism and the systematic opression of black people. We, the NFL, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the NFL, believe black lives matter.’”

Within hours, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that the league should have listened to players’ protests against racism and police brutality earlier. He said that he “encouraged” his players to peacefully protest, and said that he wanted to be “part of the much-needed change” in America.

In my earlier post from late 2018, I suggested that the NFL’s ban on kneeling during the national anthem was a result of public pressure: the league wanted to mitigate the perception that it was unpatriotic. I also said that it is critical to understand that morality clauses attempt to regulate something that is continually in flux. It is absolutely essential for employers and brands to constantly keep any codes of conduct under review. For what it’s worth, I’m so glad to see that the NFL is finally taking a knee, even if it’s several years late.

*DISCLAIMER* Generic statements are not enough. Saying “Black Lives Matter” but doing nothing to effect change is not enough. Misappropriating the work of Black activists and turning it into corporate soundbites is wrong. I also believe silence is complicity, and that white silence in particular perpetuates violence against Black, Brown and Latinx people. The purpose of this post is not to share my thoughts and feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement, which for the avoidance of doubt I fully support. Instead, it is to focus on one organisation – the National Football League – and how their response to players kneeling in protest has changed.