For example: Teams with racist names; only three Black coaches when 70% of players are Black; players like Kaepernick are sidelined for life; billionaire owners who support Trump; and players who are treated like meat to be bought and sold.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.
We all know the Super Bowl is upon us. And okay, my Ravens didn’t make it. But some of us prepare for this annual event, and there’s much more reflect on then just whether Kansas City or San Francisco walks away with a trophy. Now, not to take away from your chips and salsa, but the NFL is a bastion of racism. Everything from the team whose name was a racist slur, the reality that even though 70% of all the players are black, only three of them are head coaches, and only one black person is a GM. They attack Kaepernick or any other player who stands up against racism, and for building a new equitable society. And then, of course, many of the owners are billionaires, of course. And they back who? Donald Trump; and view the players as so much meat to profit from.
Who better to tackle this than Edge of Sports host and sports editor for The Nation; whose latest book is Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, and who wrote The Nation article “Why Are There So Few Black Coaches in the NFL? It’s the Racism, Stupid.” And our generation’s Red Barber is here with us. Welcome, Dave Zirin. Good to have you back.
Please help us make real news!
DAVE ZIRIN: It’s great to be here, Marc.
MARC STEINER: So, let’s talk about this thing. I mean, we don’t think about this often in this sense; the kind of racism inside that pervades this, who the owners are, their relationships with the players. And why should that matter to us, when we want to love to watch the game?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it only matters if we want to watch as conscious sports fans. It only matters if we want to see the game that’s taking place beyond the game. It only matters if we want to understand what the NFL truly is behind its carefully manicured shield. It only matters if we know that there are NFL players who say that NFL stands for Not for Long or N-word For Lease. That’s what they say. Because–and I’ve had players say that to me–because they believe that they are just pieces of equipment. The average NFL career is only three and a half years.
Michael Bennett, who plays for the Dallas Cowboys, he once said to me, “People think that the NFL is integrated, but it’s not integrated. It’s actually segregated. It’s segregated between those who play, and those who get to sit in the front offices, and those who get to sit in the owner’s box.” And that kind of segregation is something we should be well aware of. Because if the NFL is going to be this cultural force in our society, which it surely is, then we should be able to make demands on it to be more equitable, and frankly, to be less authoritarian.
MARC STEINER: So how do we even get there when you’ve… When, for years and years and years, people have been trying to get the Washington team to change its name. The owner refuses to do that, will not even consider it. when you have what happened to Kaepernick, all the things that have gone on inside the NFL. I mean, the only, there’s only one team that has, that is not owned by a billionaire, when that would be Green Bay. How do you change that? I mean, what is the, it’s a, this is like a private domain, their own plantations.
DAVE ZIRIN: Right.
MARC STEINER: How do you change it?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I think the only way you can talk about changing it is through, first of all, the NFL players association, and the union. Their contract comes up this next year, and this is a big deal. We should follow these contract negotiations very closely, because they should contain demands about a pipeline towards coaching, a pipeline towards working in the front office, for their players.
It should contain some sort of stipulation in the collective bargaining agreement, about making sure that players have proper healthcare upon retirement, so they aren’t just seen as pieces of meat by ownership. And I think that’s the only way you’re going to make a dent in this. Now fans can make demands, as well, for certainly hiring better coaches, which means coaches of color, because they get shut out of the hiring process, despite what they call the Rooney Rule in the NFL-
MARC STEINER: Right.
DAVE ZIRIN: That forces ownership. And it says so much that they have to be forced to do this, to actually sit across the table with candidates of color. So this is where we are. We need to look to the union, fans need to be more conscious about it, and we need to be willing to discuss this in uncomfortable spaces, like sports radio, for example. And we need to discuss it on social media, and make sure that this discussion isn’t whitewashed out of the conversation, particularly now, leading up to the Super Bowl.
MARC STEINER: I mean, and you, when you think about this, it’s only been in the last several years that you’ve seen a lot of black quarterbacks. That was the white position in football, right? And that’s begun-
DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely.
MARC STEINER: It’s slowly beginning to change. And so, it’s the same thing. I said, what you’re saying is, alluding to the fact that I think that some of these white owners of the NFL teams really don’t think much of black intelligence, or the intelligence of people of color, and-
DAVE ZIRIN: Right. You have to go with what they’re showing us in practice. I mean when there’s only one front office leader who is African American, and that’s in Miami… And not coincidentally, Miami also has a black coach: Brian Flores. That should tell us something about how this operates, and how the systems operate, and how institutionally racist the NFL is.
Because interestingly, even think about the way we’re talking about this, Marc. We’re talking about this in terms of, 70% of the players are black, and only 3% of the coaches are black. We’re not even speaking about the idea. What if you’re not a player, and you’re just an incredibly intelligent black person who knows a lot about football? I mean, you see that among white coaches all the time, particularly white coaches who are part of the family tree of certain coaches. The coach of the San Francisco 49ers–who are playing in the Superbowl–is Kyle Shanahan, the son of Mike Shanahan, longtime coach of the Denver Broncos.
MARC STEINER: Right.
DAVE ZIRIN: Now, neither Mike Shanahan nor Kyle Shanahan played in the National Football League. But there you have the nepotism pipeline, which exists on a host of fronts and on a host of teams throughout the National Football League. So if you’re a black player, and you can’t make it to the head coaching position, what the heck are your chances if you’re just a black person who is deeply intelligent about coaching and NFL strategy? You basically have no chance to make it to the higher echelons of the sport. And that’s really problematic, on the grand scale of things. Because we’re watching this sport, we’re indulging in this sport, we’re supporting this sport monetarily, and yet, this is the kind of cultural excrement that the sport puts back into our face.
MARC STEINER: So let’s talk for a moment about Colin Kaepernick, who is somebody who really changed the nature of the discussion of football. And I think, in some ways, brought some of these contradictions to the fore, just because of who he is, and what’s happened. And in what this might mean for the future of football. Because I mean, he may not get, never get a chance again to play, but what he did was to stand up to something and change even the dialogue inside. So talk a bit about what, what that means.
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, let’s make no mistake about it, Colin Kaepernick changed the power relationship between NFL players and owners. He showed that through social media, and through support of the people themselves, that players could be more than just pieces of meat, more than just extensions of equipment. And he inspired a whole layer of players, as well, to be, to misbehave basically. I mean, that’s how ownership sees it, to not act the way they’re supposed to act, to not act like good little soldiers, but instead, say, “Wait a minute, police violence is an issue that’s important in my community. I’m going to take a knee in front of all the cameras and in front of all the world before the National Anthem.”
Before you knew it, ESPN was having to have a column every week about which players were taking a knee during the Anthem. And it had to be covered and discussed. And so, then, all of a sudden, the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell aren’t controlling the messaging of their multi-multi-billion dollar operation. And that made Colin Kaepernick dangerous. And that’s why he can’t find a job, even though he’s clearly one of the 15 best quarterbacks in the world. And we have to recognize and understand that Colin Kaepernick is somebody who the NFL ownership are trying to turn into a ghost story. They’re trying to turn him into somebody who they can use to frighten players, to stay in their place, to be able to say, “You don’t want to end up colluded against. You don’t want to end up whiteballed (as Etan Thomas puts it) like Colin Kaepernick.”
And yet I think the opposite has taken place. I think Colin Kaepernick has become an animating spirit, and somebody who’s still inspiring players, not just at the NFL level, but at all levels. Just this past year, you had a basketball players at the University of Mississippi take a knee during the National Anthem, because some Klansmen types were having a demonstration on their campus and we’re being allowed to do so. I mean, that’s at Mississippi, for goodness sakes. And it just goes to show you, that you can’t get rid of Colin Kaepernick, you can’t erase Colin Kaepernick. And I think that’s something that drives the NFL batty. I mean, just this past couple of weekends back, during the NFL Championship game, there was a commercial that the NFL showed, about the works they were trying to do, in terms of working with local law enforcement on the issue-
MARC STEINER: Right, I saw that. Yes, yes.
DAVE ZIRIN: Of police violence. And who’s conspicuously missing from these ads is Colin Kaepernick, and it is like, National Archives level erasure, in terms of what they’re trying to do to him. But they can’t do it completely. They just can’t.
MARC STEINER: Well, I mean, the social conditioning in the economic issues that face this country, man, they play themselves out on the field in sports, all the time.
DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely.
MARC STEINER: And so, out of curiosity, you’re going to watch the game this weekend?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it’s a question. I mean, let me cover… If I had a job like my sister does, very proud of my sister, she’s a teacher in the public school system. If I had a job like her, I would be one of the boycotters. I’d be somebody who didn’t watch, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. As somebody who covers this stuff for a living, I feel like I need to watch, to see the kind of messaging that they’re trying to put across.
But when it comes to watching the NFL as a consumer, I mean, those days for me are done no matter how tempting Lamar Jackson is and no matter how many Lamar Jackson posters my son chooses to put on his wall. It’s very difficult for me to put to approach the NFL as a consumer, because of the way ownership behaves themselves.
MARC STEINER: So, let’s just close with this. I mean, what you just raised here when I asked that question, I was a little tongue in cheek, but the answer was incredible. So, for people who love the game, of any game, but let’s say, this game in particular, we’re talking about football right now, and how I have to weigh that, weigh the idea-
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes.
MARC STEINER: That the enjoyment of watching a great football game, or watching incredible folks play this game, with understanding what’s going on behind the game, and how you live with those contradictions? And that’s what you’re talking about.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, they’ve turned it into a moral choice.
MARC STEINER: Tight.
DAVE ZIRIN: And you know whose fault that is? That’s the fault of Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, and all of the cowardly NFL owners who hide behind the shield. It’s their fault. They’ve turned the league into something that’s polarizing. Donald Trump has certainly helped, but the idea that we shouldn’t just appreciate the players, and the humanity of the players, is absolutely absurd. And that’s something that the NFL, in the way they treat players, has done.
So I think all NFL fans should take a close look at this collective bargaining agreement and how it’s going. They should weigh in on social media, on behalf of the players, and they should push for players to be able to have more rights and more power. And I think if they do that, interestingly, I think that’ll bring more people back to the game, because nobody wants to see something that’s just rank exploitation. I mean, if it’s where you feel like the players actually have an equity, then it becomes a different moral question.
MARC STEINER: Well, we have to fight against racism, and for economic and racial justice, no matter where we find it, whether it’s sports, or it was any place else. And Dave Zirin, you show us the way in many ways. Thank you so much for your work and thanks for joining us again today.
DAVE ZIRIN: Thank you so much, Marc.
MARC STEINER: Always my pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think and write those letters to the NFL. Take care.