The big news out of the NFL this weekend wasn’t about who threw which touchdowns or which teams won which games. Under the thumb of Roger Goodell, the league has been maddeningly good at keeping the world focused on the events that happen in between the lines. Brain injuries, extra-judicial powers, quack doctors—very little of it has been able to slice through the NFL’s pomp and circumstance. But this week, that changed.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem, enacted to call America’s attention to police brutality carried out against black citizens, was not just a preseason concern. This week, Kaepernick was joined in that gesture by players across the league, starting with Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall on Thursday and ending with a few of his Rams opponents late Monday night. Many of them, emboldened by Kaepernick’s resistance, took the protest one step further: Marcus Peters of the Chiefs; Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the Patriots; Jason McCourty, Jurrell Casey, and Wesley Woodyard of the Titans; Kenny Britt and Robert Quinn of the Rams; and Antoine Bethea and Eli Harold of the Niners didn’t kneel during the anthem, but instead raised their fists, echoing the iconic images of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The fears—or, more to the point, the hopes—that Kaepernick would be isolated by the NFL machine and expelled from the league as an example of what happens when players speak their minds about social issues now appear to be unfounded. In fact, the opposite has happened. Kaepernick alone could have been cut and blackballed, but with a dozen or so players, many of them stars, behind him, the league has been forced to bend in his direction.
As a team, the Chiefs, like the Seahawks, chose to make a rather meaningless statement about “unity” by locking their arms during the anthem. Peters broke away from that by raising his black-gloved fist, and after the game he told reporters that head coach Andy Reid had said it was “okay if I wanted to express my thoughts.” Reid himself told the press that “what the players are doing right now is important.” After Marshall of the Broncos knelt on Thursday night, the team said: “While we encourage members of our organization to stand during the National Anthem, we understand and respect it being a personal decision.”
Across the field in Seattle, Arian Foster, Jelani Jenkins, Michael Thomas, and Kenny Stills of the Dolphins took a knee during the anthem. The team immediately released a statement on Twitter that tacitly backed the players, saying in part: “We also recognize that it’s an individual’s right to reflect during the anthem in different ways.” In the locker room after the game, team owner Stephen Ross was effusive, saying, “These guys are making a conversation about something that’s very important topic in this country. I’m 100 percent in support of them.” They’re all following the Niners, who affirmed Kaepernick’s right to protest back when he started.
The NFL and its constituent teams are famously conservative and risk-averse. The acknowledgement from owners and coaches that the protests were valid, and that the message behind them is important, signals that Kaepernick has beaten the Blue Lives Matter crowd in the court of public opinion. This was never more clear than this past Friday, when the Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association backed down from its threat to not help police Niners games this season. On Monday night, when a man sprinted onto the field during the game, there were plenty of cops around to haul him away.
Still, the true impact of Kaepernick’s protest won’t be clear for a few weeks. The players who joined him will presumably continue their protests. They will likely be followed by others. Eventually, the protests will cease to be front-page news. They instead will have been absorbed into the fabric of the NFL, and by extension society itself. The Overton window will have been shifted, if even ever so slightly.
The onus to make good on Kaepernick’s protest—to turn conversation into action that lessens the oppression of black lives—falls on some vague notion of “us,” and it’s fair to be skeptical of that happening. But Kaepernick has done his part, and so have the other players he inspired. The NFL had no choice but to respect it.