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The NFL is 67% black. Diversity hasn't helped white players and coaches understand racism.

Their reactions to Kaepernick’s protest teach a sobering lesson.

Alex Boone of the Minnesota Vikings (pictured in 2015 when he played for the San Francisco 49ers) called Kaepernick’s behavior “shameful.”
(Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick’s public protest against racial injustice has been intensely debated over the past week on social media, in editorials, and on sports radio. But it’s the response from inside the NFL to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s refusal to stand during the national anthem at last Friday’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers that’s perhaps been most revealing.

Kaepernick’s stance — he explained his protest by saying, in part, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” — and the tactics he used have been harshly criticized by NFL players, owners, and coaches. This pushback will likely continue, as he repeated his protest Thursday night by taking a knee during the anthem before the 49ers played the San Diego Chargers.

One way of thinking about the scorn and dismissiveness over the peaceful and clearly articulated demonstration is as a lesson about American society overall: Proximity to African Americans doesn’t guarantee understanding, empathy, or even respectful deference — even in a space like the NFL, where white athletes are outnumbered by black ones.

This conversation has been a reminder that — no matter how ideal the conditions for compassion, understanding, or support — when it comes to acknowledgement of the existence of racism and assessments of appropriate responses to it, many white Americans cling to the privilege of keeping their own scoreboards.

Why it’s noteworthy that so many of Kaepernick’s NFL colleagues turned against him

There is a persistent American cultural myth that competitive sports represent a post-racial utopia, where objective measures of merit and success are clearly identifiable. The football stadium is often characterized in Hollywood and sports commentary as a promised land where racial differences among players, fans, and coaches are rendered irrelevant. Everyone comes together to focus on wins. Sports are widely lauded as tools to break down barriers, to bring people together as teammates and fans, and to foster understanding.

While these claims are wildly overstated, as documented in a book I co-edited, Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports (Perspectives on a Multiracial America), they are based on a kernel of truth about the opportunities athletics can provide for cross-racial interaction. Specifically, in the NFL, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethnics in Sports’ 2015 Racial and Gender Report Card, 68.7 percent of players identify as black. In a world where a 2014 study showed that 75 percent of white Americans do not have a black friend, white people on the NFL payroll — whether as players, coaches, or owners — are likely to have more intimate, collaborative daily contact with African Americans than are most of their fellow citizens.

Despite all of this, for many of Kaepernick’s white peers and colleagues, his expression of despair over patterns of racialized police violence that often goes unpunished didn’t resonate.

The New York Giants’ Justin Pugh, who plays for a team representing the same city that witnessed the police killings of unarmed black men Eric Garner and Sean Bell, tweeted, “I will be STANDING during the National Anthem Tonight. Thank you to ALL (Gender, Race, Religion) that put your lives on the line for that flag.” He later acknowledged, “I’ve never walked in his shoes either so I don’t know what he goes through.” But what stood out was that he characterized the issue as one of different “opinions, positioning his stance on the worthiness of protesting racial injustice as equivalent in weight to Kaepernick’s.

It’s one thing when black athletes do this — and, to be fair, Tiki Barber and Jerry Rice have been critical of Kaepernick’s protest. But the remarks take on a different tenor and a different historical significance when white athletes condescend to his activism, self-positioning themselves as arbitrators of what constitutes an appropriate response to racial injustice.

For example, Alex Boone, a member of the Minnesota Vikings, called Kaepernick’s behavior “shameful,” demanding that he “show some respect.” Never mind that there’s no consensus that sitting during the national anthem is disrespectful. Never mind that Kaepernick was voicing his concern over societal disrespect for black lives. The selective deployment of criticism here also speaks to underlying priorities: It’s worth noting that Boone had no such negative commentary about the killing of Philando Castile, a black man who was shot and killed in July by a police officer at a traffic stop in Minnesota — the same city where Boone plays.

Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh spoke out as well, saying “I don’t respect the motivation or the action. (He would later apologize for “misspeaking” and clarify that it was only the action that troubled him.)

The armchair quarterbacking of Kaepernick’s tactics is fueled by an assumption that the white American experience is standard

Harbaugh’s critique of Kaepernick’s tactics — mind you, an entirely peaceful protest — echoed what has been a popular response. Drew Brees, a member of the New Orleans Saints, a team that plays its home games at the Superdome (a mere one hour from where video captured police officers in July shooting and killing 37-year-old Alton Sterling while he was pinned, face-down, on the ground) similarly weighed in on Kaepernick’s choices.

"I disagree. I wholeheartedly disagree. Not that he wants to speak out about a very important issue. No, he can speak out about a very important issue,” Brees noted. “But there's plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn't involve being disrespectful to the American flag."

Seeing his experiences and views about the flag and anthem as universal, Brees failed to reflect on how his own life experience differs fundamentally from his African-American peers. If he did, he might have contemplated the idea that despair over racial injustice can exist hand-in-hand with respect for the flag, and that drawing attention to racial injustice is in no way a slight to the country or the military.

It’s not that these alternative perspectives and experiences are hard to find. One has to wonder if Brees might feel different if he had experience with black military families victimized by police violence, or, for that matter, even those left on roofs without food, water, or national urgency during Hurricane Katrina in the city where he plays football. But he had no incentive contemplate the ways that an expression of protest over inequity and respect for the flag can exist without being in conflict.

Putting aside the fact that those who weighed in with the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick made perfectly clear that there was nothing offensive to the military about his demonstration, Brees’s critique represented an all-too-common assumption that his (white) experience was standard.

Kaepernick’s critics reveal how seriously they take racism — or don’t

Brees’s comments are not surprising given those of his coach, Sean Payton, who told, “Honestly, we have a lot more important things that we're working on right here in our building.”

Like these white players and coaches, many white executives who also work alongside black peers seem unable or unwilling to hear Kaepernick, to see his protest, or to recognize the issues he is shining a spotlight on. The lack of diversity with upper management (as of 2015, there was only one person of color serving as a team president with the 49ers) and the entrenched whiteness of these spaces contributes to an environment where, according to Bleacher Report, an NFL executive said in an interview about the reaction to Kaepernick’s protest that he “hasn’t seen this much collective dislike among front office members regarding a player since Rae Carruth.” Carruth is currently incarcerated for conspiring to murder his girlfriend.

These same executives reportedly see Kaepernick as a “traitor.” The vitriol highlights how diversity is hollow without a commitment to interrogating blind spots created by whiteness and a dedication to fostering societal transformation.

These reactions fit a pattern that’s bigger than the NFL. In a moment where unarmed black victims of police violence are often blamed for their own deaths and where denials and deflections that result in the “criminalization of black corpses” have become commonplace, these reactions mirror a larger refusal to see the truth about inequality, racial segregation, systemic racism, and entrenched injustice.

That’s a theme echoed in Kaepernick critics who invoke the election of President Barack Obama, Kaepernick’s salary, or the fact that he was adopted by a white family as proof that racism no longer exists. In short, the criticism has embodied white America’s ultimate “race card”: racism denial.

This is a good example of how white Americans feel empowered to shape debates about racism

This denial is in no way mandatory. In recent memory, other professional white athletes have chosen to use their platforms — and perhaps, understanding gained from their teammates — to not only accept the existence of racism, but to draw attention to it. Think of when Andrew Hawkins and members of the Rams shined a spotlight on the killings of Tamir Rice and Mike Brown, when the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, and when a multiracial group of WNBA players from the Minnesota Lynx collectively took a stand against racism by donning shirts in support of the movement.

But it is an option. That’s thanks to a phrase from Wellesley College’s Peggy Mcintosh’s 1989 essay, White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack, which has since has made its way into mainstream discussions of race: white privilege. In the context, white privilege is the power to do nothing while criticizing from the safety of our communities and homes. White privilege is the ability to condemn how others protest their own oppression all while absolving ourselves of any sort of responsibility. White privilege means that even working, sweating, and sacrificing alongside black teammates does not guarantee understanding. White privilege provides a choice, whereby we can take or leave the worldview that challenges our own. And so often we choose to leave it.

Pugh, Harbaugh, Brees, and Clay Traviswho called Kaepernick an “idiot” — are the ultimate reminder that diversity and breaking down social distance doesn't guarantee understanding, compassion, or support for movements toward equity. The “invisible knapsack” that is white privilege remains available and provides them, and all white Americans, with blinders, earplugs, a Rolodex of excuses, and a megaphone to shout our conclusions. In the debate over Kaepernick — in sports and in the broader world — it give us a sense of entitlement to question how others work toward change — and worse, to deny that change is needed at all.

David J. Leonard is a professor at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press, 2012) and the forthcoming Playing While White: Privilege & Power on/off the Field (University of Washington Press).