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American Gladiators

September 11, 2016

Of National Football League players, 68.7 percent are African-American, a percentage that has held remarkably constant over the 25 years that The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) has issued annual race and gender report cards for American professional sports leagues.

Given their 12.2 percent share of the American population, African-Americans are hugely over-represented among professional football players. But that overrepresentation does not extend throughout the sport.

According to the TIDES NFL report for 2015, there are no African-American majority owners of NFL teams and no African-American football team chief executive officers or presidents; African-Americans hold only 8.9 percent of team vice presidencies and 9.4 percent of league office management posts. Although 34.7 percent of assistant coaches are black, only 15.6 percent of head coaches and 21.9 percent of general managers are black. But those head coaches and general managers account for 43.8 percent of the last 16 Super Bowl teams, suggesting that, as elsewhere, in the NFL an African-American must be better than his white colleagues to do as well.

Racial disparities in football apply on the playing field as well. Although African-Americans make up 68.7 percent of all players, they include just 19.0 percent of quarterbacks and 15.8 percent of centers. African-Americans fill a miniscule 1.1 percent of special teams positions. By contrast, 99.4 percent of cornerbacks and 88.2 percent of wide receivers are African-American.

In the NFL to this day, African-Americans are respected for strength, speed and aggression, but not for intellect, leadership or judgment.

*          *          *

On August 26, African-American back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers sat through the pre-game playing of the Star-Spangled Banner before a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers. After the game, Kaepernick explained his position:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

On September 2, Kaepernick knelt through the national anthem, which he said was intended as more respectful to veterans than sitting, while maintaining his protest.

Kaepernick’s protest has generated enormous attention, requiring comment even from President Obama half a world away in Laos. The conservative white condemnation of Kaepernick’s protest is most notable for its venom. Some have twisted Kaerpernick’s protest against unpunished police shootings of African-American men into denigration of the American military. Some of suggested that, because Kaepernick is paid “millions of dollars” he should keep his opinions to himself – if we pay you enough, in this view, you’re to think approved thoughts. Donald Trump opined that Kaepernick should consider leaving the country. 49ers home fans booed Kaepernick from the stands.

It’s hard not to wonder how different the reaction would be if the racial dynamic were reversed – if Kaepernick were white, of course, but even more so if the cause of Kaepernick’s protest were, say, unpunished police shootings of young white men. But that thought experiment yields no results, because we can’t imagine a true reversal of the racial dynamics at play here. We can’t imagine an America in which government employees regularly shoot unarmed white men and routinely go unpunished; we can’t imagine a white quarterback sitting out the national anthem in protest against police bias against his race.

To me, that is proof enough that reaction to Kaepernick’s protest has a substantial racial component.

I’m sure there has been some white athlete in some sport somewhere who has declined to stand for the national anthem. I’m certain that white athletes have objected to government actions or political policies. But the protests that stand out in our history have been protests by African-American athletes.

Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted in 1966, at a time that the Vietnam War was still popular. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists while the Star-Spangled Banner was played at their 1968 Olympics medal ceremony. Watching American reaction to Kaepernick now reminds me a lot of those events; distressingly little has changed about how well we handle dissent, or at least African-American dissent.


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