With NFL training camps well underway, teams looking to sign a quarterback have passed over Colin Kaepernick time and time again. It appears he may be serving his ultimate punishment following a year of protest and activism. Amid those who defend NFL decision-makers as simply making choices for “football reasons,” there has also been a chorus of critics who see (black) players as responsible for his remaining on the sidelines.
“If the black players would unite, and say, ‘We will not play Game 1 this year,’” Skip Bayless noted as part of a discussion about Kaepernick on Fox Sport’s Undisputed, “I promise you, it would have an impact and would get something done.”
Bayless isn’t alone in putting the responsibility and risks in the laps of the league’s black players.
“As a result, the only way that NFL owners would be threatened by a protest was if it came from the players,” argues A.R. Shaw. “If all of the Black NFL players threatened to sit out a game, the NFL owners would immediately find a way to sign Kaepernick. About 70 percent of all players in the NFL are Black. The NFL product would suffer tremendously without its Black players.”
In response to such commentaries, we should question why it is the responsibility of black players to refuse to play. Why do Bayless and others see the burden of protest as one held by black players rather than those who cash in on racially codified privilege on and off the field? Imagine if Tom Brady spoke out. What about Drew Brees, J.J. Watt, or countless other white NFL players? Imagine if they refused to play in protest of the treatment of Colin Kaepernick. What if they, like Malcolm Jenkins and Marshawn Lynch, continued Kaepernick’s protest against persistent anti-black racism? Yet, white players are neither expected nor chastised for failing to protest racial injustice, for failing to account for the decisions of their employers.
#PlayingWhileWhite means having the ability to remain silent amid zero expectations of doing what is morally/politically righteous. As noted by Howard Bryant, “The White players in the NFL should be ashamed of themselves. If you’re a union…You have to send some type of message that this isn’t acceptable.” Yet, Bryant has been one of the few voices demanding action from ALL players.
Seemingly ignoring the countless black players who have spoken truth to power over the discrimination and persecution of Kaepernick, much of the discourse focusing on “player silence” continues to center the failures of black players to speak up. Some have even gone as far as to call out specific players for not kneeling with Kaepernick last season or standing up against the owners. Most of those named are African American, ostensibly giving white superstars a pass.
As I argue in Playing While White, one of the privileges of whiteness, on and off the field, is being seen as a leader. Yet, when it comes to leading the fight against racial injustice, against the discrimination of one’s football peers, these white leaders are nowhere to be found. And while their black peers are chastised for selfishly not standing up for Kaepernick, for not speaking, whites inside and outside of football are not held accountable.
#PlayingWhileWhite is also having the privilege to speak out without fear of punishment; in fact, #PlayingWhileWhite is having the ability to speak out about racial injustice without widespread accusations of “playing the race card,” “selfishness,” “ignorance,” “childishness” or “ungratefulness.” To be white and woke is to be insulated from the demonization and criminalization that is commonly applied to black athletic protest. While black athletes, whether in the WNBA, among the collegiate ranks, or in countless other spaces, are routinely told to shut up and play, white athletes are told over and over again, ‘we love when you use your voice, your intelligence, and your place to be role models and facilitators of social good #ThankYou #TruthToPower.’ To be white and woke is to garner celebration for one’s courage, leadership, and selflessness.
When New England Patriots defensive lineman Chris Long voiced his support for Kaepernick, he was rightly praised as an accomplice doing necessary political work. Long went beyond the clichéd “I support his right to kneel,” never mind the issues of racial injustice and anti-black violence, reflecting on his own whiteness. “I play in a league that’s 70 percent black, and my peers—guys I come to work with, guys I respect, who are very socially aware, intellectual guys,” Long noted. “If they identify something that they think is worth putting their reputations on the line, creating controversy, I’m going to listen to those guys.” Such comments didn’t prompt outrage or endless debates within the sports media; rather they prompted praise, shock and awe, and celebrations. He’s not alone.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has expressed support for Kaepernick and disdain for the “45th President of the United States,” and who has discussed white privilege and systemic racism, has not been called a distraction. His opinions have not been dismissed as baseless; he has not been routinely told to shut up because he is alienating fans and sponsors. Instead, he has been widely celebrated as “woke,” as intelligent and knowledgeable, and for using his power and privilege to advance change. Like Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy, Pop is held up as an example of how sports figures can use their platforms to foster critical conversations about racism. While their platforms emanate from their place in the coaching ranks, from their power as fixtures within the sporting landscape, their whiteness is central. To coach while white empowers them to speak out in ways that their black peers rarely dream; the wages of whiteness amplify their voices, promoting praise and celebration of their courage, wokeness, and sacrifice.
The widespread celebration of Josh Rosen (and Johnny Manziel), compared to Cardale Jones or Nigel Hayes, all of whom have in different ways shone a light on the hypocrisy, moral bankruptcy, and complicity of the NCAA, its partner schools and collegiate coaches in the exploitation of college athletes, elucidates the ways whiteness matters.
#PlayingWhileWhite is also engaging in political projects without fanfare, media scrutiny, or accusations of distraction and disrespect. Look no further than America’s golden boy, the ultimate modern day great white hope, whose leadership is praised as much as his intelligence and work ethic, Tom Brady. Over and over again, he exhibits the power and privileges of whiteness not simply in the narratives that render his screaming on the sideline as evidence of his passion, that refashioned accusations of cheating as proof of his competitiveness and victimization, that imagine him as the ultimate leader because of his determination, intellect, and commitment to team, but in his ability to be vocal and silent on political issues at his choosing.
#PlayingWhileWhite is standing for the national anthem, while black peers kneel or raise a fist, and never having to answer why he stands in silence. It is never having to explain how his whiteness shapes his understanding of the national anthem, the Kaepernick protest or the broader issues of racism in America. It is the ability to put a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker in the midst of the election and then rebuff inquires and criticisms. Like countless college coaches, who embraced then candidate Donald Trump, questions about appropriateness, about feelings of fans, sponsors, and teammates, and about these political choices were few and far between for Brady. As I write in Playing While White, “Race helps us to understand how Colin Kaepernick and countless black athletes are demonized and threatened for bringing their disrespectful politics into sports at the same time that countless white athletes and coaches are empowered to support Donald Trump with few questions about respect, the values of his campaign, or the message they sent in their support. Whiteness is privilege on and off the field. Whiteness matters.” It matters for those who remain silent; it matters for those speak out; and it matters for those whose rhetoric and actions serve to normalize white supremacy. If the recent events in Charlottesville, VA taught us anything, it should be that white America, from the football fields to stands, from the halls of government to the classrooms of higher education, need to speak out, kneel and stand up, collectively in opposition to the politics of white nationalism and endemic realities of racial violence.
David J. Leonard is a professor at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field (University of Washington Press) and After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press, 2012). He is also co-editor of Visual Economies of/in Motion: Sport and Film (Peter Lang, 2006), and Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011). His work has appeared in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, Game and Culture, as well as several anthologies. Leonard is a past contributor to The Undefeated, NewBlackMan, the Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Urban Cusp.