Ahead of yesterday’s Super Bowl, rumors began to swirl online that the NFL tried to censor halftime headliner Dr. Dre, pressuring him not to use the line “still not loving the police” from his 1999 hit Still D.R.E..
The same report claimed that the NFL also told rapper Eminem not to take a knee during the performance, as it would almost certainly divide the audience and immediately call to mind the NFL’s absolute failure in handling the Colin Kaepernick situation. But Dre, who dumped something like $7 million of his own money into the halftime show, wasn’t going to be told what not to say, and Eminem, right on cue, took a knee after his performance of Lose Yourself.
After the halftime show, the NFL denied that it had tried to limit the performances in any way, but the report just sounded way too on-brand, exactly the kind of thing the NFL would ask of performers.
“We watched all elements of the show during multiple rehearsals this week and were aware that Eminem was going to do that,’’ an NFL spokesman said afterward.
But being aware someone is going to do something and asking them not to do it are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible that the league tried to whitewash the performance and Dr. Dre and Eminem told them exactly where to stick that idea. Does anyone doubt there are forces within the NFL that would absolutely have “concerns” about upsetting conservative white fans? The entire report sounds a little too on the nose to be nothing more than rumor.
And yes, “fans” were upset. Or at least fake upset enough to think they could make political hay out of the moment:
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the NFL did or didn’t try to prevent Eminem from kneeling, or if it was an homage to Colin Kaepernick or something else. It meant something to the fans, many of whom have been waiting years for the NFL to acknowledge how badly it handled Kaepernick’s protest, which, by the way, could not have been less intrusive or more respectful, only to get a few mealy-mouthed mumblings from Commissioner Roger Goodell, who only managed to say, “I wish we had listened earlier,” in August of 2020, more than three years after Kaepernick was forced out of the NFL. Oh, and he still doesn’t have a job.
The NFL’s reckoning with race continues to go poorly, as evidenced by the recent class-action lawsuit filed by former head coach Brian Flores, which accuses the league of discriminating against Black candidates when it comes to hiring. To no one’s surprise, simply putting “End Racism” in the end zones didn’t accomplish much, and the entire world knows it.
In a league where Black men make up 70 percent of the athletes on the field, the (nearly all-white) owners have resisted any kind of real change, instead finding ways to get around the league’s once-celebrated Rooney Rule, which persists as little more than a shadow of the playing-field leveler it was intended to be.
No matter what Eminem intended by taking a knee, he had to be aware that doing so at halftime of the NFL’s crown-jewel event was bound to be interpreted by fans as meaning exactly one thing: A nod to Kaepernick and all he had given up to take a stand (no pun intended), and a giant middle finger to the NFL.
And on Super Bowl Sunday. How glorious.
Now that The Big Game is in the rearview mirror, we’ll return to business as usual. Teams will start preparing for the draft. The vast majority of NFL reporting will return to Xs and Os. The league will get a break from pretending it cares about racial equality in any way. Roger Goodell will go back to being fake contrite about the lack of Black head coaches. After all, the league already tossed its audience a bone with a hip-hop halftime show. What more do you want?
But for one, brief moment, the halftime show felt like a righteous rebuttal of everything the NFL stands for, which, these days, is a lot of rich white guys refusing to let anyone else into their club in any meaningful way. And it was a great moment for everyone who wants to see a true racial revolution in America’s favorite game.