GREEN BAY – There’s no question that of all the professional athletes in this country, those who play for the NBA and WNBA understand best the power of collective action.
It showed in their protest of a Kenosha policeman shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back.
Maybe it’s because players in both leagues agreed to give up their personal freedom in exchange for playing the game they love during the coronavirus pandemic. Yes, they are getting paid, but they are making a sacrifice being isolated from their homes and families for going on two months now, so they are in this together.
Both leagues embraced the Black Lives Matter ideal and made social justice a prominent theme as part of their return.
It took the collective action of the Milwaukee Bucks, who decided they would conduct a one-day strike on the same day they were scheduled to play Game 5 of their playoff series with Orlando, to spur the others into action, but that’s sometimes how protest movements develop.
Reports out of Orlando indicate that the Bucks’ action took the other teams by surprise, but maybe that’s what made it such a powerful statement. Almost immediately, other teams started talking about a walkout and by the time the day was over all playoff games scheduled that day were canceled.
WNBA players then decided to sit out their playoff games Wednesday and soon some major league baseball teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers, walked out as well.
The NFL, meanwhile, has had a far less unified message.
The Detroit Lions players decided to skip practice Tuesday as a protest of the latest police shooting of a Black man, but it did not have the same impact among their brethren that the Bucks’ job action did.
On Thursday, after the rest of the sports world had taken action, some in the NFL followed suit. At least seven teams, including the Green Bay Packers, chose not to conduct practices they had scheduled and instead meet to discuss social justice issues.
Coach Matt LaFleur, who has been as outspoken as any NFL coach in condemning inequality, said his players wanted to practice. But he thought the team needed some time to process an emotional team meeting and canceled all required activities.
“We were having some really long conversations,” LaFleur said. “When you feel that emotion in the room, it’s hard to focus on football. It is emotionally draining for everybody in that room, so I made the decision that, hey, we’re not going to go today.
“I just didn’t think it was right.”
The stirring documentary “13th,” which examines suppression of Black people through mass incarceration, was shown inside the facility for those who hadn’t seen it or wanted to see it again. It was not a mandatory activity.
LaFleur wasn’t sure what will happen Friday. He has a practice scheduled for 10:30 a.m., but he said he would take things day by day as he and his team decided what actions they could take to protest inequality and injustice.
What the NFL clearly lacks is a unified movement.
Maybe it’s because they aren’t sheltered together in a bubble or making the same sacrifices the NBA leagues and the NHL are to keep their sports going. Maybe their union feels bound to a new collective bargaining agreement it signed in March and doesn’t feel it should organize a mass walkout.
The NFL is at a disadvantage because it’s not playing games. No one is going to get too upset that they are skipping a day of practice.
If the NFL players really want to force change, they’re going to have to do it collectively. They have 12 days until the NFL opener between Kansas City and Houston on Sept. 10, and they must decide whether they want to use Week 1 as a bargaining chip in demanding change.
Some think Week 2 would be smarter because there needs to be one week of games for 2020 to become a credited season toward free agency. If that’s the case, they could allow three weeks for certain changes to be made before they decide whether to skip the slate of games Sept. 17-20.
It’s hard to say what the NFL would do if the players violated a no-strike, no-lockout provision in the current collective bargaining agreement. It could go along with the action as a sanctioned protest or it could sue the players for breach of contract.
Harder even still is to specify what the players would demand.
What is in their power to alter the systematic racism they and other professional athletes are condemning? What can they do to raise awareness or correct a wrong?
They could start by demanding the NFL make a written apology to Colin Kaepernick.
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The NFL could admit that it was wrong when it refused to support him, choosing to see his kneeling during the national anthem as disrespect for the military and the flag rather than a protest against police brutality. It could admit that it blackballed him from the game for his actions.
It could make all 32 owners/team presidents sign the document.
And then it could offer to hire Kaepernick – at his 2016 salary – to educate the owners on the cause he has championed. It could force each owner to meet with him individually. Maybe he would decline because he shouldn’t have to be the one educating them, but it would be his choice.
The players could also demand that their freedom to protest social injustice would be guaranteed every week. They could demand a change in hiring practices so that more Black head coaches, general managers and team presidents were considered for positions they’ve basically been locked out of.
That would be a start.
Undoubtedly, the collective would be able to form demands that bring far greater change than anything we’ve seen from the sports leagues thus far. The NFL is the most popular sport in the country and while there is a fraction of society that would not support a walk-out, all three major sports have flourished again after work stoppages.
The NFL would remain wildly popular.
The burden of fighting racism shouldn’t fall on Black people’s shoulders, which is why action from the NFL’s mostly white ownership would speak volumes. Organized pressure from the players is one way to move them in that direction.