In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, the N.F.L. has decided to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, in Week 1 of its coming season.
As a former N.F.L. player, my initial reaction was: why?
Is this a sign that the N.F.L. is serious now, that it truly wants to honor its commitment to promote racial equality in the league? Or is it just a symbolic gesture, one meant to placate its players, without any meaningful change?
Don’t get me wrong, symbolism can be a powerful thing. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a fixture of Black life, a celebration of our tumultuous experience — the struggle and triumph, the joy and pain of being Americans.
The song was originally a poem, written by James Weldon Johnson, the historian, author and civil rights activist. He was no stranger to police brutality. In his book “Black Manhattan,” he describes Black people running away from white mobs during the New York race riot in 1900, only to be violently beaten by the police officers, from whom they had sought protection. An investigation into the police violence was turned on its head and the police were treated as if they were the victims of a crime.
Similar themes are playing out today: no accountability and no justice.
The N.F.L. has had plenty of opportunities to be on the right side of history. It could have supported Colin Kaepernick and other players who took a knee four years ago to protest police brutality and racial inequities in the U.S. justice system.
It was only last month that the league issued an apology of sorts, admitting that “it was wrong for not listening to N.F.L. players earlier.” This mea culpa took place only after demands by more than a dozen of its young stars, including Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City quarterback who was named the Super Bowl’s most valuable player last season.
How could the N.F.L. be so blind? The author and historian George M. Fredrickson wrote that “societal racism did not require an ideology to sustain it so long as it was taken for granted.”
The N.F.L. is not immune from this observation. An overwhelming majority of owners in the N.F.L.‘s history have been white men. Today, more than two-thirds of the players are Black. But across 32 teams, there are only three Black head coaches and two Black general managers.
And then there are the politics. Almost a dozen owners of N.F.L. teams have supported President Trump by contributing money or hosting fundraisers. This is the man whose words and Twitter account can attest to his racism — who has insulted N.F.L. players who took a knee, suggesting that they shouldn’t be in the country.
If the N.F.L. wants to send an unambiguous message that its concern is genuine and not performative, it must start with this political disconnect.
The recent pledge of the N.F.L. and its team owners to contribute $250 million over 10 years to fight systematic racism is not enough. Nor is honoring victims of police brutality with helmet decals and jerseys.
The owners must make radical changes. First, they must immediately stop raising money for President Trump. It is impossible to walk in opposite directions at the same time, and supporting the president is the antithesis of supporting the players.
Then, using their vast political connections, the owners must personally lobby for issues that matter to the players’ coalition, like legislation to reform policing.
And they should clean up their own house. The N.F.L. must be committed to hiring more Black head coaches and Black executives. It needs to build a pipeline for the advancement of junior coaches.
There is other work to be done — including by my former team in Washington. Its founder, George Preston Marshall, an avowed segregationist, was the last N.F.L. owner to integrate his team. His statue was finally removed from the front of RFK Stadium, the team’s former home, as was his name from the stadium’s Ring of Honor. But the team has not removed the club’s offensive name, despite decades of opposition from Indigenous people.
The team says it will review whether to change the name. But what additional information does it need?
While I will enjoy hearing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the N.F.L.‘s opening week, I will remain skeptical. Radical change is truly needed. We don’t need any more symbolic gestures. We need the N.F.L. to step up and change a decades-old playbook that has long been out of step with the times.
Donté Stallworth played in the National Football League for 10 seasons.