A Little Introduction: I am a true Seahawks fan. I’ve lived through the good, the bad and the ugly—from Curt Warner (yay!) to The Boz (ouch!) to Rick Mirer (good gawd) to finally winning a Super Bowl with the still awesome Legion of Boom. Hell, I didn’t even trip when the Seahawks made the boneheaded decision to throw the ball on the one-yard line instead of giving it to Beastmode because, hey, we just won a Super Bowl last year. Can’t be greedy. Sure, the TV somehow broke when I threw the remote at it when the interception happened, but y’know, I’m cool.
Point: I love me some football; especially the Seahawks. It’s easy for me to whittle Sundays away between watching games on TV and checking fantasy football scores. Right alongside my love for professional football and the Seahawks is my love for social justice, equity and access. Accordingly, I have tried to commit a good portion of my professional energy as an attorney and educator to those goals. I try to help find ways within systems to create more justice and equity. The NFL has LONG been a system on the “caveman” side of the evolutionary scale, showing consistently it does not value NFL players’ lives or health (#NFLLivesMatter?), that it does not value women (from Josh Brown to Ray Rice to Greg Hardy women are treated as fodder for a violent NFL), it condones and glorifies racism whether via Hank Williams, Jr. or the Washington Redskins and also perpetuates homophobia in various ways (Eli Apple most recently, but also Le’Veon Bell, Nick Kasa, etc).
In short, the NFL enables and permits a lot of evil shit. It has for a very long time. That means that I also enable and permit a lot of evil shit by my support of the NFL every single time I whittle a day away watching football. That means that every single fan who silently supports, and every single player who silently plays likewise allows that same evil feces. And despite my love of watching the NFL and the Seahawks, I find myself constantly torn between my being complicit in the traumatic brain injuries, homophobia, misogyny and racism which infects the NFL systematically and being entertained by the sport.
This is about personal accountability; it’s not just the NFL. It’s also us. Ugh.
So when this whole business about Colin Kaepernick being blackballed came about I thought, “Here’s a guy who is taking a stand and it is important to stand with him.” Period. A black man being blackballed for taking a political stance to save lives is 100 percent unacceptable. Make no mistake: Kaepernick is in fact being blackballed because of his political stance and people of conscience should take some action. #IStandWithKaepernick So let’s light up social media and shame those teams whose quarterbacks suck (thank you Richard Sherman) and refuse to give him a workout! Let’s be supportive of those teams (thank you Seahawks) who do give him a workout! And even though Kaepernick is an ex-49er, this goes deeper than simple team rivalries. Plus, the Seahawks been whupping that ass for some years now! So I am 100 percent down to use whatever meager influence I have because we cannot let any injustice, no matter how small, slide within racist and misogynistic systems.
I found it interesting though when folks began talking about making Kaepernick emblematic of all the wrong the NFL has done throughout the years. Folks began talking about Kaepernick like he was Muhammad Ali; like we collectively had a duty to ensure that he played this year otherwise something was horribly, horribly wrong with the NFL. Therefore, they began to talk the language of “boycott” to try to ensure that Kap got a shot this year.
And I thought, “Really? That’s where we draw the line? Kaepernick? This is the thing that shows something is horribly, horribly wrong with the NFL? Things have been horribly, horribly wrong with the NFL. His situation is just a individual symptom of a systemic disease. Kaepernick’s situation is happening because we’ve ALL―including Kaepernick―allowed all of the other stuff to fester for a very long time.”
Don’t get me wrong — NFL owners have done Kaepernick an injustice. Moreover, that injustice is, unfortunately, completely consistent with history in regards to many black players who take brave social stances (Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali, etc.). But this is where we draw the line? I get it ― we, the fans, should pressure our teams to give qualified backups a chance to ensure that Kap is able to take the field again. Personal accountability. But straight up, fans have consistently witnessed the NFL allowing worse things than this over and over and over and... and the truth is that most players, including Kaepernick, have let those injustices slide. Violence against women. Systemic racism. Homophobia. Those injustices are still going on in real time. So if we want to mass boycott, then it seems fair that it should be something that helps the masses. For that mass boycott to happen, the boycott should speak to that cross-section of foul isht that the NFL has been doing for years, the racism, the homophobia, the misogyny. For that mass boycott to happen, we have to go after the underlying disease, not just the symptom. If we’re going to go after all of that? Cool. Count me in! If not? I’m not convinced. If it only speaks to one person, Kaepernick or otherwise, I see two basic problems with a boycott:
1) Kaepernick has not Built an Intersectional Coalition for Justice by Speaking Out Against Violence Against Women, Systemic Racism or Homophobia Against NFL Players. Kaepernick’s protest, while absolutely powerful and necessary, is not intersectional. His protest is only centered on threats that he, a heterosexual, millionaire male athlete, squarely feels and shows no deference for other victims of the NFL. Although Kap’s protest is no doubt righteous and also no doubt his right under free speech protections, it does not speak to the many, many horrible things that the NFL has allowed for years. He has not spoken up for and amplified the Native activists who have decried the Washington Redskins team name and logo for decades. He has not spoken up against the NFL for allowing women to be brutally beaten by NFL players and then summarily forgotten into NFL and pop culture irrelevance. He has not spoken up when fellow NFL players or NFL prospects were asked, illegally, about their sexual orientation. In short, as legitimate as Kap’s protest is, I’m not sure we can reasonably expect others to find themselves in his struggle since he hasn’t chosen to find himself in theirs.
2) An Individual Remedy for Kaepernick Will Not Address Systemic Racism, Misogyny and Failure to Address Harm to NFL Players. Aside from the very real lack of intersectionality in the framing of Kaepernick’s protest, I simply do not know what bigger victory is won by Kaepernick getting his job back. In fact, a mass boycott and subsequent action from the NFL will almost ensure that all the other systemic evil the NFL perpetuates will still be in place and unchecked. Instead, the NFL will pat itself on the back and we’re left to believe that all is well. The systemic misogyny will still be in place and unchecked. The systemic racism will still be in place. The systemic homophobia will still be in place and unchecked. If all social justice champions—anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-misogyny, etc.—decided to join in a boycott and Kaepernick got his job back, it would be seen as a huge victory for justice. In the event of such a “victory” the owners and the NFL would certainly bask in the glow of being evolved and responsive to injustice allowing them to sideline the very real claims of less visible and more disenfranchised groups to whom NFL continues to do harm. In the end, Kaepernick gets his job back and the NFL continues to capitalize upon a system which remains almost entirely unaccountable and continues to perpetuate injustice.
In conclusion, I get it. Shout out to everyone who is pushing for Kaepernick to get a spot on an NFL roster and shout out to legendary Harry Belafonte and celebs like Spike Lee for pushing this conversation. I’m with you. It’s a necessary conversation. All NFL fans should always push the NFL to be more humane and justice-oriented just like all participants of any system should always push that system to be better. But asking fans to boycott has got to be bigger than that―if folks really want this mass boycott to go down it has to be about more than Kaepernick. His situation is just a symptom of all of the stuff that the NFL has gotten away with for decades. It has to be about a collective benefit; Kaepernick is the low hanging fruit. This has to be about the systemic violence that the NFL has committed for decades in regards to racism, homophobia and misogyny. There has to be some collective good; these are systemic harms, so an individual remedy is simply not enough. So let’s get it―let’s REALLY do something to create justice in the NFL. Let’s work to build coalition with the many oppressed groups directly harmed by the NFL. Let’s do that, absolutely. But it should be that. Otherwise, this will be nothing more than an individual pseudo-progressive windfall for an individual justice-minded NFL player.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation (Amskapipikuni) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is a father, a storyteller and an attorney. You can reach him on twitter and instagram at @BigIndianGyasi. He also co-hosts the Breakdances With Wolves podcast.