Has the NFL Become More Progressive in the Last Four Decades?

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As the 2022 season moves forward, it’s probably worth taking a look back to see whether the National Football League, its leadership structures, and the fan culture that surrounds it have become any more progressive than they were 40 years ago.  

High school football hero lauded for silence 

In the early 1980s, football—high school, college, and the NFL—was as hugely popular as it is today, but its culture was also tied to some of the worst aspects of our country’s history: exclusion, bigotry, and racism.  

In 1980 Herschel Walker (the candidate for the United States Senate in the state of Georgia) was a high school senior who had already scored national fame for his extraordinary prowess on the football field and for his personal story of honing his athletic talent through grueling determination. For example, he would train by running barefoot down dirt roads with truck tires tied around his middle. 

That this most celebrated of high school football players chose the University of Georgia over more prestigious schools in more progressive states seemed to affirm the very culturally conservative football culture of his home state. The teenaged Walker also earned praise from his many white mentors and associates for his refusal to speak out on the numerous instances of bias and bigotry in Georgia, as well as in his rural hometown of Whitesville, where white people beat Black protesters, hoisted Confederate battle flags, and fired shots into the homes of Black families. This same neutrality—or passivity—in the face of so much hate also earned the antipathy of other Black students in his community.  

Social justice or whitewashing? 

Now that we’re in a post-Kaepernick age (free agent Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t been signed since 2016) has anything changed?  

For one thing, the NFL now sports a social justice initiative, working nationwide to inspire and facilitate “positive change” and “equal opportunity.” Created in the wake of Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem at a 49ers game, the Inspire Change program emerged out of discussions among a player-team owner group (a group that did not include Kaepernick).  

Kaepernick, along with fellow NFL player Eric Reid, filed a grievance in October 2017 against the NFL, claiming owners colluded to freeze them out of the league after their public acts of protest against racism and police brutality. That November, the NFL directed almost $90 million to the Players Coalition, the nonprofit from which Inspire Change emerged in early 2018. Kaepernick and Reid’s case wasn’t decided until 2019, when they reportedly received less than $10 million. 

Goodell speaks 

In summer 2020, players produced a video in which they confronted the NFL leadership over its hesitancy to issue meaningful condemnations of racism, requested a public declaration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and called for the admission of bad-faith behavior regarding the concerns brought forward by players. At last, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did the right thing, noting that the NFL condemned racism and admitted its errors in not listening to players when they first tried to address societal racism and brutality. And, Goodell said, “Black lives matter.” 

In a later radio appearance, Goodell addressed Kaepernick directly: “I wish we had listened earlier, Kap.” Goodell went on to address the unfair way some members of the media and fans had mischaracterized Kaepernick’s protests as “unpatriotic” or “disloyal.” Kaepernick and other players who protested, Goodell said, were only trying to “exercise their right” to focus attention on problems that urgently required real solutions. 

So in some ways, we have come a long way from 1982, when such an admission from the NFL commissioner would have been unimaginable.  

“Conservative” vs. “liberal” – Fans are all over the field 

But where are the fans in all this? Many criticize what they see as too much “wokeness” in the NFL today. A Newsweek op-ed from September 2021 declared that, along with COVID restrictions, “social justice” advocacy had driven fans away from attending games. Having players take the field that season with chosen slogans on their helmets such as “End Racism” or “Stop Hate” was too much for the columnist, who further said that “the Left” had “weaponized” the death of George Floyd to promote hostility to traditional patriotic ideals.  

Politically, there are plenty of teams whose fan base largely identifies as liberal. One 2017 study reported that 31 percent of Houston Texans fans said they were “very liberal,” and 39 percent of both Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints fans said the same. Fans of the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers also skewed heavily “liberal.”  

On the other side of the ledger, you have the New England Patriots, 18 percent of whose fans identified themselves as “very conservative.” The Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, and Tennessee Titans also posted fair numbers of “very conservative” fans, but none of these measures reached the high percentages as shown for the “very liberal” fans of the other teams.  

Conservative outrage over Kaepernick notwithstanding, this maybe doesn’t indicate so much an overwhelming fan base of ultra-conservatives for the game as a whole as it does an overwhelmingly vocal base.  

Like anything else, it looks like we’re taking two baby steps forward and one backward as we try to inch toward a truly inclusive game, one in which all players are valued and equal. 

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