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NFL Fans Are Divided Over How Players Express Themselves Politically


NFL fans right now are deeply divided, and it's not about which team is better.


Oh, no. This is about how players express themselves on the field politically. It goes back to Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who last year took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against people of color.


COLIN KAEPERNICK: There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust - people aren't being held accountable for - and that's something that needs to change.

KELLY: This season, Kaepernick is out of a job. His supporters say he's plenty good enough to make a roster. He's just being blackballed.

GREENE: And meanwhile, the kneeling protests have spread. Every weekend, players emulate Kaepernick. And many critics have a problem with these anthem protests for a variety of reasons, which means some fans on both sides are angry, and they have been boycotting the league altogether.

JESSE WASHINGTON: So now the NFL is squeezed between these dividing protests, these protests from both sides.

GREENE: Jesse Washington is a senior writer for theundefeated.com.

WASHINGTON: On the one hand, you've got people who say, I'm not going to watch the NFL until Colin Kaepernick gets signed. And on the other side, you have people saying, I'm not going to watch the NFL until they stop all these players from kneeling.

GREENE: Yeah, these anthem protests have been rattling the NFL, a league that tries to steer clear of politics. TV ratings, long on the rise, actually took a dip last year. And some teams have really gotten worried about this polarized atmosphere. Take the Cleveland Browns. Before their opening kickoff, the team played this video on the big screen.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No matter your race or no matter your gender, we are all created equally.

WASHINGTON: In the video, it was players of all different backgrounds - white, black, brown - talking about unity, talking about human rights.


DESHONE KIZER: Together, we can make our country a better place.

WASHINGTON: A real "Kumbaya" type of moment...


RANDALL TELFER: ...Love for what it stands for.

WASHINGTON: And I found it hugely ironic that the people who are boycotting did not see it.

GREENE: ...The voice there of senior writer Jesse Washington. Now, he spent time with some of these boycotting fans, and he told me about a group he met outside Cleveland. They are Veterans of Foreign Wars, and they are strongly opposed to Kaepernick and other anthem protesters.

WASHINGTON: So they've got 1,300 members of this VFW post, and the flag is nonnegotiable. The anthem is nonnegotiable for these folks. And when you start raising issues, and using the flag and the anthem to discuss these topics, they're not going to hear you.

The interesting thing about my discussion with people inside that post is that a lot of the people who are upset with the flag protests do not believe that African-Americans are still treated unfairly in this country, that are still subject to oppression. They think that there is a level playing field. And so if you go inside that VFW post, you will find the belief that, hey, man, it's a bunch of black millionaires out here playing ball. They should be grateful for this opportunity. That's really the essence of the dispute that is hurting the NFL right now.

GREENE: But this is a really important thing to drill down on. I mean, you're saying it is not just people saying, look, you NFL athletes are millionaires. You don't have anything to complain about. It goes beyond that. It's a belief that African-Americans in this country don't really have a reason to be angry and to protest anything.

WASHINGTON: One hundred percent, that's the root of it. And, you know, I've spent many years reporting around this topic. I've spoken to people all across the country. And there is no mutual set of facts that we can agree upon when it comes to this topic. However, the NFL is a business, and having a conversation about race is almost a no-win situation for them. No matter what they do, they're going to have people upset.

GREENE: You wrote that sports is often a place where America puts aside its differences to enjoy the spirit of competition and community and that the NFL is really threatened in what you call an extraordinary moment. I mean, I just think to the '60s, and you had Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam. You had two black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the medal podium in the '68 Olympics making a black power salute. I think of, you know, tennis star Billie Jean King fighting for women's rights. Is there something that new about this moment?

WASHINGTON: No. There's something that unresolved about this moment. And this is one of the things that we've really been grappling with over at The Undefeated. One of my colleagues raised a good point today. She said, all of the athletes that have raised this issue over the years paid a heavy price for their activism. Ali was banned from his sport at the peak of his abilities. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were kicked out of the Olympics for daring to make this gesture. And so you can tell that a lot of the country is profoundly uncomfortable with these athletes/gladiators actually voicing opinion on racial issues, and we're seeing that play out right now in front of us on Sundays.

GREENE: Well, is there something about the NFL that makes it a natural venue for these kinds of strong emotions to be unleashed?

WASHINGTON: Yes. It's one of the integrated places in America. We're largely still segregated. Call it what you will - self-segregated or structurally segregated. But it's a rare opportunity to just get a lot of people from a lot of different racial backgrounds in the same room watching the same show.

GREENE: Because you've covered politics before, we should say, and I wonder if something feels the same about this moment in sports or different in some way because it's sports.

WASHINGTON: It feels different to me. It feels new because the athletes are making more money than ever before. They have a bigger platform than ever before because of social media and because of the amount of attention. One thing I think that should be noted is that African-Americans, many of us in fortunate positions who have, quote, unquote, "succeeded" feel a strong necessity, drive to speak out on behalf of those who are voiceless.

So Michael Bennett and Colin Kaepernick feel a responsibility to speak for those who are not heard because we've made it to this point through the sacrifices and struggles of those who came before us. And we would be remiss if we did not try to help the black community because even though we have, quote, unquote, "made it," at the end of the day, you know, Kanye said it. You're still a N-word in a coupe even if you're in a Benz. That's part of the dynamic that's playing out in sports here. They're making more money than ever before, but by many empirical measures, the black community is suffering still, as it always has. What am I supposed to do? We see it playing out on the field right now.

GREENE: Jesse Washington, a pleasure talking to you. We really appreciate it. Thank you.

WASHINGTON: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Jesse is a senior writer at theundefeated.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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