Opinion: NFL’s Hidden Hate Practices Help Explain Why It’s So Hard To End US Racism

If you’ve watched any NFL football games the past couple of seasons, you’ve no doubt noticed the “End Racism” signs painted into the end-zone turfs of each field.

It may to many seem a promising step toward meaningful social change that an organization with such cultural visibility and reach and such a powerful mouthpiece within the dominant culture should be promoting social justice and racial equality, particularly at a time when the White Supremacist elements of American society are rearing their ugly heads so brazenly and in seemingly full force.

And, “Wow,” we might think, look at the NFL giving the prominent Super Bowl stage to such powerful Black voices as Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg.

And yet, I think we need to recognize an insidious and underlying cultural and political dynamic operative here that actually works to perpetuate and more deeply entrench racism in America.

For sure, the NFL has taken heat for some heat for the most blatant hypocrisy this end-zone signage exposes, especially during the AFC Championship game when the controversial Kansas City Chiefs logo, a flagrant racist use of Native American iconography, so brazenly juxtaposed to the “End Racism” signage.

We need to see the dynamic as more than hypocrisy though. Hypocrisy tends to refer to the practice of expressing two contradictory points of view or acting in contradiction with one’s stated point of view.

What the NFL is up to, however, I would suggest, is actually a concerted and common practice in America of turning social justice into a commodity in a way that enables the continuation of practices that perpetuate and intensify injustices and that masks the deep commitment to entrenching the very injustices being targeted.

The NFL’s profound commitment to racism, homophobia, and sexism was exposed—as was the dynamic I’m talking about—in all its naked ugliness and brutality even after Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the “social justice” initiative of the end-zone signs in September 2020.

In October 2021, for example, the NFL settled a lawsuit regarding the practice of race norming with former Black players Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry, as well as class counsel for NFL retirees, in the amount of $1 billion and with agreement to stop the practice.

More specifically, the case had to do with the testing of former players for dementia and concussions. Former players whose tests revealed cognitive impairment qualified for awards that averaged $500,000 or more.

But here’s the deal, white and Black were players had different benchmarks to meet, as the NFL evaluated the tests working with the assumption that Blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, thus they had to show a lower level of cognitive functioning to qualify for an award.

As Dr. Katherine Possin, an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco who specializes in neuropsychology, explains the practice of race norming in this kind of testing, she says,

 “In other words, the benchmark for whether the person is impaired enough to qualify for an award or to meet a diagnosis is lower for Blacks than for Whites. The underlying assumption is that the Blacks started at a lower cognitive baseline and therefore need to score even lower than the Whites to meet the same benchmark to qualify for a (financial) award in this case.”

So, the NFL that publicizes ending racism, presumably to sell its product, also deeply believes in the intellectual inferiority of Black players, especially if that brand of scientific racism saves it hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement monies.

And, of course, that same month, October 2021, featured the revelation of a spate of emails, dating back to 2010, sent by former NFL coach and broadcaster John Gruden, which were replete with racist, anti-gay, and misogynistic language.

Gruden resigned shortly thereafter, but what becomes clear is that these racist and more discriminatory attitudes abound in the NFL—and, of course, America—and are embraced until they are found out; and then maybe, just maybe, they’ll be addressed.

But let’s be honest, Colin Kaepernick’s 2019 settlement with the NFL for colluding against him was subject to a strict confidentiality agreement, which meant we learned none the details, meaning the NFL did not need to be accountable to the larger American public for its racism and also that as a culture America did not have to process, address, or in any confront the racist practices and attitudes so ingrained in the American value system.

Instead, America, like the NFL, tends to pat itself on the back for its ideals, declaring that racism should end while also holding firm to the notion of Black intellectual inferiority and refusing to take part in helping the culture as a whole understand what racism is, what bedrock cultural beliefs inform it, how it can end, and what actions we as individuals and as a society need to take to end it.

I’m reminded of the ending of Mark Twain’s classic novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The enslaved Black character Jim, trying to escape, risks his quest for freedom to assist a doctor in aiding Tom Sawyer, who had been shot.  When a crowd arrives, they want to punish Jim, who doesn’t know he has actually been freed, for trying to escape. The doctor, though, vouches for Jim’s character, saying:

“ . . . I never see a [n-word] that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I see plain enough he’d been worked main hard, lately. I liked the [n-word] for that; I tell you, gentleman, a [n-word] like that is worth a thousand dollars—and kind treatment, too.”

Twain is well aware that the doctor, while praising Jim as “good,” still sees him as inferior and as a commodity, a piece of property., and speaks of him hatefully.

In this novel so often and erroneously hailed as a great American novel about the quest for freedom, Twain is actually taking America to task, well after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, for supposedly espousing progressive values of equality while sustaining the racist value systems that sustain racial and social inequality–and, of course, hate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the passive moderates and self-proclaimed allies in the fight against racism as more of an obstacle to social justice than the overtly virulent racists.  It may be that even bigger enemy to social justice are organizations like the NFL that turn social justice into a commodity to sell their product while engaging in virulent racist practices informed by racist values and beliefs.

Enjoy the Super Bowl!



Tim Libretti

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