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NFL’s New Social Justice Deal is Useless So Long As We Demand Athletes ‘Stick to Sports’

On the third anniversary of the day Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, he posted a video that showed several extremely disturbing and troubling instances of police brutalizing people of color. The anniversary comes a few days after rapper Jay-Z and Roc Nation signed a deal with the NFL to produce Super Bowl halftime shows together, with a focus on social justice and entertainment.

Kaepernick, undoubtedly the figurehead of social justice in the NFL — the man who lost his job for what he believes in — is not involved in this deal. Clearly Hov didn’t become hip-hop’s first billionaire by sacrificing opportunities for principles, and this partnership looks wildly disingenuous on both his part and the NFL’s. Eric Reid, former teammate of Kaepernick, sounded off on twitter about the opportunistic nature of this deal:

Now, is anybody out there telling Jay-Z to stick to rap? Not when he’s partnering with the same league that blackballed one of the loudest social justice voices in sports. Let’s ignore the fact (for now) that today’s political climate makes it impossible for people to stay out of politics. Sports and politics have always existed in tandem. The top athletes in the world — past and present — often belong to marginalized groups. From Muhammad Ali to Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King, it has always been an injustice to ask people with a platform to stay silent on issues that have such a huge impact on their personal lives. And for what? To support some antiquated idea that sports and politics shouldn’t mix?

Kaepernick refused to stay silent on an issue that heavily affected his community, and essentially lost his job because sports fans, owners, and the league decided they had the right to dictate what their players can stand up (or kneel) for. (Looks like he’s still ready for the call, though).

Athletes like Kaepernick have a right to use their platform to push a conversation in the country, on subjects from police brutality and equal pay to gun control and LGBTQ rights. Katie Uhlaender, four-time Olympian and World champion in skeleton, spoke to Calling Game about the touchiness of politics in the Olympics.

“In sports, especially in Olympic sports, they can tell us not to be political when they stop being political,” she said. “The complete imbalance of power that exists within the Olympic movement is worth kneeling for.”

Perhaps the most famous example of this trend, aside from Kaepernick, is Jemele Hill. After almost 12 years on ESPN, Hill sent out a series of tweets describing Trump as a “white supremacist” and “the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime.” That October, Hill was suspended for 2 weeks for violating ESPN’s social media guidelines. She left ESPN entirely approximately a year later, receiving an “amicable” $6.25 million buyout for the remainder of her contract. Hill & ESPN reportedly wanted to find a way to stay together, but decided that it was best they move on from each other. 

Two years later, ESPN host Dan Le Batard unloaded on ESPN’s “no politics” policy during his radio show, in the wake of Trump’s “send her back” meltdown against Democratic congresswomen of color. Le Batard faced no disciplinary action, but ESPN sent a reminder out after the show aired, asking hosts & commentators to steer clear of politics unless it naturally intersects with the sports they are covering. 

In both Le Batard and Hill’s cases, ESPN has proved that it is uncomfortable, perhaps fearful of starting an important discussion. Yes, ESPN is not CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, but it is, and has always been, impossible to cleanly split sports and politics. People of color make up about 42% of the MLB, 80% of the NBA, 74% of the WNBA, and 90% of the NFL. How, in this political climate, can we expect these athletes to keep quiet? ESPN pretending an issue like this can simply be ignored is extraordinarily ignorant on all accounts. 

Let’s get one thing clear. As sports fans, we watch and enjoy our favorite athletes, commentators, and analysts on television. We enjoy their stunning plays and insightful commentary because we can find our passion in the game. This in no way correlates to some absurd notion that we are allowed to control what they do or say. We don’t own Colin Kaepernick or Jemele Hill — although Fox News’ Laura Ingraham seems to think so. Ingraham, in a particularly ignorant rant that went viral in 2018, criticized NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant (two players that have been extremely active in giving back to their communities) for their comments in an ESPN podcast about the negative effect Trump has had on this country.

A good sign a pundit is light on effective arguments is when they attack someone’s use of grammar. She told two of the greatest NBA players of all time to shut up and dribble, but kneeling is disrespectful? We wonder if Ingraham has as big of an issue with Curt Schilling, the former MLB pitcher now considering a run for office. Should Schilling stick to his curveball? Why is Schilling, who was fired from ESPN for his hateful and despicable use of social media — like promoting conspiracy theories about the Parkland school shooting, sending out tweets comparing Muslims and Nazis, etc. — considered more of a “patriot” than LeBron James? 

Why should athletes just stick to sports? Kaepernick is suffering a great personal loss simply for being a professional athlete with strong opinions on issues that directly affect him and his community. The NFL focusing on social justice now does nothing if it doesn’t empower its athletes to speak out, and empowering its athletes means giving Kaepernick his platform — and his job — back.

Listen to Calling Game’s podcast on all this below:

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[Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]

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Kelsey Trainor is a former two sport collegiate athlete, collegiate women's basketball coach and current attorney & producer. Amba Jagnarine is a former college athlete in charge of business development at Abrams Media (Mediaite's parent company). We are passionate about sports and giving women a bigger voice in all aspects of it. Twitter: @ktrain_11 | @AmbaJagnarine