The NFL season opens in less than two weeks. That seems like an eternity for this country, at this time when things we could have never fathomed a few short months ago are the new norm.
The landscape has changed in so many ways, with sports often at the intersection of the ongoing struggles for public health, racial equality and proportionate policing, and with the political environment as charged and divisive as ever ahead of a landmark election in November. The NFL, of course, is immune to none of this, and if you think that what is going on in the NBA right now, in the heart of its playoffs, can't happen in the NFL regular season, you are fooling yourself.
The paradigm in sports – professional and collegiate – is changing. A revolution of sorts is at hand, one that is being conducted for fairness and justice and nothing financial. Athletes have found their voice and their platform. As with COVID-19, thus far the country's premier pro sports league has not had to face these issues in the regular season in quite the same way as the other pro sports, but that time is nearly upon us.
And the NFL, a league of predominantly black players and entirely non-black owners, which has just welcomed its first black team president in its 100-year history and is grappling with issues of diversity in its front office and coaching staffs, is not immune. The people within the game know it. If you spend even a few minutes on the social media feeds of NFL players, from journeyman to superstar, you know the football world will be impacted by this wave of emotion and cry for help.
In a year in which there were no OTAs or any practices at all at team facilities, and at a time when fans are not around for training camp and with no preseason games to be played, NFL players will not have a platform to truly express themselves for maximum impact until the real games start. They have been watching what has gone on in baseball and basketball and soccer, and they are ready to join the movement to end police brutality and continue the work first begun by Colin Kaepernick four years ago.
There will be protests and movements, and should there be another killing of an unarmed African American person by police that is captured on video during this season, no one should be surprised if the men of the NFL respond in a very similar way to what we have just seen in the NBA and WNBA and MLB and MLS.
"Something like what happened in Wisconsin happens next month and it could shut the entire league down," said a longtime executive from one of the NFL's more successful teams. "The precedent has been set."
Make no mistake – widespread demonstrations from NFL players were already coming. And that was never changing, even in the best of times. Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by police, and the ensuing movement by professional athletes, has ratcheted up the situation exponentially, and football players are every bit as heartbroken and despondent and angry and disgusted by this latest instance of police brutality.
Let's keep it real here for a moment. I covered the NHL for about a decade and broke into this business covering MLB. If any sports were positioned to attempt to skirt these issues or not wade in, it was these. They are predominantly white and the Stanley Cup playoffs are being halted for at least two days – after already being stunted and altered by a pandemic – because another black man was shot by police in the street.
There is every reason to believe that we will see a delay of some sort during the NFL season that is not in any way related to COVID-19. And should players taking a knee become as intertwined into an election as it was four years ago, things could get particularly messy. These players are fed up and pissed off, and anything less than a full-throated repudiation of presidential attacks on them for enacting their constitutional rights could be met with drastic consequences when it comes to game day, or games being played at all.
The stakes are too high and the tension is too raw and the emotion too visceral. This is about much more than football.
What the Milwaukee Bucks did will have ripples and ramifications for years to come. They shifted the labor/management paradigm in ways not before fathomable. They may have shifted the balance of power in the player's favor for good.
The Bucks hit the pause button on the NBA playoffs in the most public of fashions in an attempt to focus America's attention on issues so drastically more important than sports. On issues, quite literally, of life and death. And so many immediately followed.
And they did it amid a power dynamic that has never changed: almost exclusively white owners and rosters that are overwhelmingly black. These actions and the immediate movement the Bucks decision spawned is an attempt to send a signal to these owners and to these commissioners and to these league's broadcast partners and sponsors that merely putting out a press release that says Black lives matter is not going to suffice anymore.
The product has the power -- not the leagues or the owners -- and the players are the product.
That timeless adage in sports management that fans cheer for the name on the front of the jersey and not the back is suddenly being challenged in ways none of us could have imagined a few weeks ago. If the game isn't played because there is more blood in our streets, then the fans aren't cheering for the front or the back. And the networks and sponsors aren't selling any beer or cars during the timeouts. The commerce of sports grinds to a halt.
And now these players are saying very explicitly, yet without actually saying a word in many cases, that the status quo is no longer good enough. It's time for management to invest in their labor with those same resources and political clout in ways they could have never before fathomed. And more to the point, to invest in the very communities that produced these world class athletes in a way that most of these owners could have never before fathomed.
That is where this is going. And it will be political. And it will ramp up and reach a crescendo before Nov. 3.
Expect much more interaction and mobilization among the most prominent athletes across all pro sports leagues. They are seeing their ability to affect change and bend others to their will like never before. I suspect there will be Super PACs and organized grassroots political groups and activism like we have never seen before, and quite likely more games postponed because athletes are appalled by what is going on in our streets. The NFL's players are paying close attention. You should be too.