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By attaching fines to peaceful protests, the NFL has prioritized symbolism over lives

Raheem Veal

 // May 24, 2018

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As the Philadelphia Eagles closed in on the team's first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, you could literally feel the city filling to the brim with excitement. Before the final buzzer had sounded (and before I had the chance to finish my drink), thousands of ecstatic fans were already piling into the streets to celebrate.

Boy, was it something. Drunk college students flipped over cars, climbed oily light poles, jumped turnstiles, burned everything in sight, and trust-fell from the top of two-story buildings into crowds of outstretched arms. People from all walks of life—rich and poor, black, brown and white, old and young—jubilantly traded high fives in the closest thing I've seen to a benevolent anarchy. The poorest major city in America collectively lost its shit over the victory. It was madness. It was amazing.

But as I laid my head on my cool pillow hours later, my two minutes of downtime reminded me: we'd forgotten about Colin Kaepernick. I'd willingly boycotted the NFL in the weeks prior—which was easy enough since I'm not a huge football fan. Kaepernick, a proven quarterback who went the duration of the season without being signed to a team, identified a worthy cause and has laid his career on the line for it: black lives.

However, today's 24-hour news cycle and social media dependency has reduced protests to trends, desensitized us to injustice, and overloaded us with distractions. Even our outrage now has a time cap (which is about three weeks, at most). And honestly, many NFL fans were simply unwilling to make the sacrifice—which is understandable. Playoff football is a huge priority—dangerously close to religion—for many fans across the country.

But yesterday, the NFL made it clear that the feeling isn't mutual. The League announced that teams would be fined if their players participated in the protest act of kneeling during the National Anthem next season. By attaching financial repercussions to silently, peacefully expressing one's own opinion, the NFL—like many American institutions—has prioritized symbolism over lives. Many Americans have traded their human compassion for patriotism—too triggered by an "insult" to the flag that means so much to them to listen to the people whose lives do not. Somehow, theory (the majority's love for "the flag") outweighed practice (the minority's right to free speech) in terms of upholding American values. Was this truly what NFL fans wanted, or were they manipulated into wanting this by a small group of wealthy, powerful shareholders?

The answer is complex. It is completely plausible that a portion of fans simply wanted an end to the necessary chaos and to "get back to football," but this is also about suppressing black resistance. Due to the fact that almost 70-percent of NFL players are African American, we can surmise that this new fine is a containment strategy. The way the league has handled Kaepernick's protest resembles fear tactics imposed upon black people in this nation overtime.

Blackballing Keapernick this past season, team owners have sought to "make an example" of him in the same way public displays of violence deterred resistance in earlier decades and centuries. Police brutality is a living remnant. Though Stephen A. Smith seems to be disgusted by the comparison, one also can't help but think of how the World Heavyweight Title was stripped from the legendary Muhammad Ali.

After deterring players by essentially threatening their livelihoods, the League has now doubled down and given team owners incentive to keep their players "in check." The combination of the mental (blackballing of Kaepernick) and policy-oriented (imposing fines) strategies of restricting movement is the crux of modern institutional racism.

Thinking back to the night of the Super Bowl, the majority of the people causing the joyful carnage were white. That night, police officers stood by and only remained vigilant—obviously prioritizing public safety over containment. The vandalizers' white privilege transformed the officers' purpose for being present. As a black person, this scene made it even more evident that black lives are devalued; protection without control was doable.

Next season, African American players will face yet another situation in which their blackness could potentially endanger them. We shouldn't expect any kneeling protests though. After all, the lack of solidarity around Kaepernick's protest is what allowed him to be isolated and eliminated. The League has now hired a firm to poll fans about Kaepernick being unsigned—anxious to see if its profits will be impacted.

As the former San Francisco quarterback travels the world speaking about police brutality, other players and athletes should be weary; their Constitutional rights are slowly being pried from them. If the players are not able to realize their immense leverage, their movement will continue to be contained until standing perfectly still is all that's acceptable.


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