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Is the NFL protest movement stalled because of infighting?

Nothing kills a movement like division; nothing sustains one like unity

We march, y’all mad.

We sit down, y’all mad.

We speak up, y’all mad.

We die, y’all silent.*

What an exciting time to be a sports fan.

We watch. We cheer. We agonize over balls and strikes, over every failed first down. We rhapsodize over rip-roaring slam dunks.

Our excitement has alternately been tempered and accentuated by the awakening of a consciousness among athletes that is collective and individual. What form will global protest take in three months when athletes around the world descend on South Korea for the Winter Olympics?

This new and exciting activism was sparked last year by the simple gesture of kneeling by a professional athlete: Colin Kaepernick, who said he’d had enough. Enough of unpunished police violence, unpunished brutality, the shooting of the young, shooting of the old, shooting of the unarmed. Kaepernick and his former teammate, Eric Reid, have put fans and spectators in the uncomfortable moral and ethical position of examining their conscience and inaction in the face of social ills outside stadiums and arenas. Thanks to Kaepernick, the arena has become much less of an escape. Indeed, even as the major professional sports leagues mount very public fights against cancer, the cancer of racism widens, deepens and, in some cases, is cheered.

A day after a Houston Astros player, Yuli Gurriel, was caught in the dugout making racist gestures at Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, Gurriel was loudly cheered by Astros fans.

This is the ultimate fan lament: He may be a bigot, but he’s OUR bigot.

By his actions last season, Kaepernick became the architect of the player protest. Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles and others are chief builders. Jenkins has organized a coalition of active players to engage with the NFL, but Kaepernick, according to published reports, is not one of those players.

A recent article published by Slate suggested that Kaepernick has been boxed out and marginalized. The article showed e-mail correspondence between one of Kaepernick’s attorneys and Jenkins disputing the public perception that Kaepernick has been invited to meetings. As I read this legalese back and forth, I wondered why the two veteran NFL players, who clearly are on the same page, can’t pick up the phone and talk.

I suspect they have.

In any event, there is a reason that the NFL may not want Kaepernick involved.

He started this protest, and he will pay the pioneer’s price for being the first. He will pay the way Jackie Robinson paid, with his health, for desegregating baseball. He will pay the way Curt Flood paid for being the first to take on major league baseball’s reserve clause.

Kaepernick will pay the way all pioneers pay: with their lives and their livelihood.

The most significant difference between then and now is today’s overwhelming presence of high-profile, well-compensated black professional athletes.

Kaepernick has an army, if the army chooses to back him. And it should.

The players must have Kaepernick involved in any closed-door meeting with the NFL. These are the same 32 teams that have effectively locked Kaepernick out and the same 32 that, soon, will be threatening to lock out NFL players when the collective bargaining agreement comes up for renegotiation.

But that’s a ways off. In the here and now, Kaepernick, through an attorney, has complained that he has not been included in the meetings. I don’t know whose idea it was to have an attorney send a letter to Jenkins, or who thought it was a clever idea to air dirty laundry, but a legalized revolution run by attorneys seems doomed to fail.

In any event, the deed is done.

A player who said he did not want to appear to take sides told me Kaepernick and Jenkins are working toward the same goal: Jenkins is working from the inside as an active and productive player. Kaepernick is organizing from the outside in a way that would be impossible if he were on a NFL team.

But as much as we like to discuss player protests, this is a fan issue too.

Fans and players have a lot more in common — a lot more — than meets the eye.

What can fans do?

First, change the terminology of the power dynamic between players and managers.

Stop calling the mostly white men who control these teams “owners.” They are CEOs, stewards of the game, at best, allowed to conduct business by the good graces of taxpayers like you.

This language encourages delusions that these men and women really do own human beings. That players are slabs of ribs. Barbecue.

As Flood said in 1970, “owners were the ranchers, we’re the cattle.”

Stop suggesting that players quit their jobs and walk away in protest. Most of us wouldn’t do it. Why should they?

Recognize that player, spectator and fan are in this together — that is, employees bound by the whims, vagaries, profits and losses of our respective industries.

In 1970, Flood, announcing why he was refusing a trade under baseball’s stifling reserve clause, wrote to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn: “After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold, irrespective of my wishes.”

Here one day, gone the next.

Prisons, plantations, baseball fields, diamonds and courts, we’re all roughly in the same boat. Employers finance in many cases multimillion-dollar lifestyles, at the very least lifestyles that allow us to take care of our families.

As Seattle’s Richard Sherman told me last week: “Fans want us to make the ultimate sacrifice, but they’re not even willing to turn off the TV and not watch.”

I’m not sure where the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) fits into all of this. Relative to Kaepernick, the NFLPA’s abandonment of its role of advocacy borders on treason.

I suspect when it does become involved, the NFLPA will use this moment as another negotiating chit against the NFL. A chit designed to cut or further a deal, not to address the substantive issues at hand: police violence and social justice.

The priority for players, besides pushing for lofty items like social justice, is to see that Kaepernick is involved and to keep the lines of communication open.

They should keep in mind a fundamental tenet of competition and struggle against the odds: Nothing kills a movement like division. Nothing sustains one like unity.

Liner Notes

*Message printed on popular T-shirts and hoodies

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.