There was a lot of thought given on whether to even write this column.
Banging one’s head against the wall isn’t really enjoyable, and at this point, spotlighting the NFL’s daft, performative behavior when it comes to any kind of civil rights issue is just that. The only thing club owners care about is money, not principle nor being good citizens.
But Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifices, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertion and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals,” so here we are.
To be clear, writing this is not akin to suffering, certainly not the kind of suffering Dr. King and his contemporaries endured in the face of vicious, violent pushback. But the pushback certainly remains.
And whether it feels repetitive or not, the NFL should still be called out for its plan to “honor” Dr. King on Monday night during the Arizona Cardinals-Los Angeles Rams playoff game because it’s more of the same: a fraudulent, ridiculous scheme from a league whose actions show its true heart again and again.
Small, round “MLK” decals will be on the back of every helmet. “BE LOVE” will be painted at the back of the end zones, which by itself is just words.
Words without action are meaningless. Decals and field paint are meaningless, particularly when there haven’t just been years of inaction, but deliberate actions against what King stood for. Like expelling players from the league who dared to protest on behalf of those who look like them, before the paternalistic owners they toil for begrudgingly conceded that they could speak up, though preferably in ways they approved. You know, quieter, more acceptable ways.
No, we will never stop reminding you that Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have had their playing careers taken from them while a clod like Richie Incognito has gotten multiple opportunities to bring his cruel brand of “humor” and “leadership” to locker rooms around the league even after multiple violent events.
A press release announcing Monday night’s corporate sanitization — sorry, remembrance — of King includes this quote from commissioner Roger Goodell: “Dr. King envisioned a world where justice and equality existed for all,” carrying on the greatest MLK Day tradition of all, white moderates trotting out their vision of who King was, cherrypicking a few words or flat-out misappropriating one sentence from his “March on Washington” speech to use as a cudgel, not someone who was reviled in life by those who thought true equality for Black Americans was unacceptable.
“Justice and equality for all” are foreign words to a league that is so fiercely protecting Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder over the women who endured vile acts while employed for his team that it isn’t fully cooperating with a Congressional inquiry into what happened in WFT offices.
Justice and equality are foreign concepts for a league that has to offer the grown-up equivalent of a gold star for teams that actually hire and promote non-white coaches and front office personnel.
The release also mentions the NFL’s “Inspire Change” initiative, which to this point has meant a public service announcement during games and throwing some money at some groups fighting for the progress league owners have no interest in being part of.
Unless you think one Black head coach is some kind of progress.
The NFL had a golden opportunity last year to actually use its significant influence to further one of Dr. King’s major causes: voting rights. When the Arizona legislature proposed a series of laws that would have disproportionately affected Black, Brown and Native voters in the state and make it harder for them to cast their ballots, the league could have gone to state leaders and told them Super Bowl LVII, set to be played in Glendale in 2023, would be moved elsewhere if the odious laws passed.
As best we can tell, the NFL did nothing. Once upon a time you had done the right thing in Arizona, when it wouldn’t recognize the MLK Day holiday, and pulled a Super Bowl from the state. The holiday is nice but window dressing; on voting, something infinitely more important, the league did nothing.
That would have been a proper way of honoring Dr. King.
The NFL could have followed the words of the Cardinals’ Kelvin Beachum, also quoted in that release:
“In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., may we continue to fight for justice for all who are marginalized economically or due to the color of their skin. We quote the words he spoke with conviction. It’s much more vital to embrace the ideals and actions of his message. We honor the life of a man who stood for justice, for liberty, for integrity.”
It’s more vital to embrace the ideals and actions. Instead you’ve chosen decals.
Maybe one of these days a column like this won’t be necessary, and NFL team owners will begin to act in a way that shows they have read or watched Dr. King’s words, and they’ll fight for a more just country instead of trying to (literally) paint over their inaction.
For now, the NFL seems to be content with hollow gestures, and not doing much to reflect what Dr. King actually believed.