The Super Bowl is over, and it’s time to reflect on the history that was made with this NFL season — and I’m not talking about the Eagles. I have a frequent refrain that it is hard to understand a moment in history when you’re in it, and there was such a story this year.
This football season, there was a boycott of the NFL by fans who were determined to stand in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has been effectively blacklisted from the league for his protests against police brutality and systematic racism.
The people who participated in the boycott are among those who, though they might not realize it, are in the middle of a crucial moment in history.
When it became clear, last summer, that the NFL was going to effectively ban Kaepernick, with all 32 teams refusing to even give him a tryout, I announced that I would be boycotting the NFL and asked people to join me.
I knew that boycotting football would not be easy for many people: It was very hard for me! I love the NFL. The call to boycott was asking a lot of people: to turn off the TV, cancel Game Pass, and do something, anything, other than watching an NFL game. Like many others, watching football has been a Sunday ritual in my life for decades.
But Martin Luther King Jr.’s words still ring true: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
What the NFL did to Kaepernick is a historic injustice because it is part of a larger pattern. In the prime of his career, when he is as young, healthy, and strong as he’ll ever be, in a season in which 20 different teams had quarterbacks go down with injuries, in a season in which over 100 different men were hired as quarterbacks in the NFL, he was never even given a chance — like too many African-Americans.
It is wrong when it happens to a guy from your block, and it is wrong when it happens to a sports star. It’s as wrong as it was to ban Muhammad Ali from boxing when he refused to fight in Vietnam. And even worse, Kaepernick, unlike Ali, didn’t even break the law (however unjust the law that Ali broke was). The NFL banned the man from the league, denying him the right to earn a living doing what he seems born to do, because he peacefully protested police brutality in this nation.
Last summer, I took action because I believed we would be mistaken to support a corporation that would deny a qualified man employment because he peacefully stood against injustice.
I actually think we succeeded in our boycott of the NFL. But what does success in this context look like?
The Super Bowl was a huge match-up and, by all accounts, a great game. But the ratings just came out and it was the least-watched Super Bowl in nine years. We were part of that.
The ratings for the whole NFL season came out this past month, and they were down by 10 percent — one of the largest single-season drops in recent history. We were part of that.
Now here’s the thing: Kaepernick is still not in the NFL. It might be tempting to consider that and wonder if our boycott failed. But that’s not the right way to think about this effort.
Consider, for example, how much organizing went into the protests against the NFL. How often in recent American history have so many of us have come together, sacrificed something we truly love, and boycotted it for an entire year? No matter how big the boycott was, the fact that it was there and that it was sustained is a success itself.
It’s hard to gauge just how many African-Americans participated in the NFL boycott this year, but it seems exceedingly likely that our families played a large part in this protest. The organization of what is surely a large number African-American households around a protest movement is itself another success.
That sort of organizing, that sort of commitment, is something to be proud of. I know for a fact that Kaepernick is proud of us, too. That pride we can and should feel — that’s a success, too.
For too long, we’ve allowed people and brands and corporations to take our money without demanding that they treat us with the respect we deserve. This year could be a tipping point for us, when millions finally said, You know what: Enough is enough.
I will not trade my dignity for some entertainment. I will not trade my self-respect for recreation.
Many readers have asked if we should continue the boycott. My answer is to look at these successes. My answer is yes. We should never support a corporation that has done to a man what the NFL has done to Colin Kaepernick. Because if a company can do it to him and we accept it, they can do it to any of us.