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State of the Black NFL Fan
Photo illustration by Delcan & Company and Francisco de Deus
State of the Black NFL Fan

‘Black folk are NFL fans too’

An introduction to our season-long look at the State of the Black NFL Fan

The crowd was pumped. They had gathered steadily for hours last August in front of NFL headquarters at 345 Park Ave., New York, and finally the United We Stand Rally for Colin Kaepernick was underway.

One by one amid cheers, speakers quickly connected with the large, predominantly African-American group loudly voicing its frustration over the fact that Kaepernick, by any measurement a successful quarterback for six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, couldn’t find work in the NFL. Convinced that Kaepernick’s demonstrations during the 2016 season had shined a light on institutional racism and the killing of unarmed people of color by police, his supporters erupted in gratitude each time his name was said. They bonded in the conviction that Kaepernick has been stiff-armed by the NFL, a league many in attendance had faithfully supported for years if not decades, merely for using his voice in an attempt to uplift people from their communities.

There, on the doorstep of the NFL, the sprawling group sent a message to the people who lead professional sports’ most successful league.

“What was so clear that day, and really for some time, is that the people Colin is trying to help recognize what’s happened to him and they’re mad about it,” said Stephen A. Green, a lead organizer of the event. “You can see it in the way so many of us [black people] have responded to the NFL [on social media]. You can see it in the way we’re calling out the NFL about how Colin has been treated every chance we get. We’re letting the NFL know that we know this isn’t right and we’re not going to stay quiet about it. It’s like the NFL has forgotten something that could be very important for its future: Black folk are NFL fans too.”

African-Americans attend NFL games. They watch them on television. They gripe about their fantasy teams. They buy jerseys. By any metric, blacks have contributed immensely to the enormous popularity of the NFL’s multibillion-dollar business. Both on and off the field, they’ve helped the NFL become the colossus it is today. The very notion, however, that African-Americans also support the NFL has been conspicuously absent from the ongoing debate about protests during the national anthem.

From the moment Kaepernick first demonstrated a little more than two years ago and thereby started a new civil rights movement in sports, NFL owners have been flummoxed by the most divisive issue facing their league. At the league’s highest ranks, decision-makers have scrambled to allay the fears of its corporate partners and fans offended by the protests, with support for the demonstrators falling starkly along racial lines.

Eagles fans bring the Super Bowl bling before a preseason NFL game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles on August 16, 2018, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With each step Kaepernick and others in the movement have taken, the NFL, mostly through incendiary comments made by some of its owners, has alienated a large swath of loyal customers. Those opposed to the peaceful demonstrations, which occurred within league rules, have framed the protests as somehow being un-American and intended to disrespect the military and police. Kaepernick’s nearly yearlong legal battle against the NFL over his inability to get back in the game has further solidified his status as a hero among many blacks. And the fact that safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s onetime 49ers teammate and the first player to kneel alongside him, joined the passer’s legal fight after the door was slammed in his face in free agency reinforces the widespread sentiment that both Kaepernick and Reid are being punished for their politics. To hear many civil rights activists and NFL players tell it, the NFL won’t wind up being on the right side of history.

While the NFL is still whacking away at constructing a new anthem policy in hopes of ending at least a portion of the long-running controversy, President Donald Trump, who is immensely unpopular with African-Americans, continues to complicate the process. To be sure, the situation remains as volatile as it is fluid, and black NFL fans, in some cases, have been forced to choose between rooting for their favorite NFL team and rooting for Kaepernick and Reid to receive what they believe is justice. As Week 1 of the NFL’s 98th season draws to a close, the league continues to be dogged by complex issues of race that are most important, generally speaking, to its black fans. And how the league ultimately resolves its challenges will speak volumes to a key group now left to wonder aloud about how the NFL looks at them.

The NFL became the No. 1 sport in the U.S. by having wide appeal. One doesn’t get to the top of the mountain by drawing interest primarily from fringe groups. The league is spectacularly popular across gender, age and racial lines. But African-Americans have a unique relationship with the NFL.

The NFL is almost 70 percent black. The league’s so-called “skill positions” of wide receiver and running back, those who score most of the points, are dominated by African-Americans. Besides stirring excitement among fans by producing touchdowns, those players are also the league’s greatest showmen. From Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s “Funky Chicken” dance to Antonio Brown’s twerking, the league has been made relevant in popular culture largely because of the influence of black culture. According to commentator and author Roland Martin, it’s obvious.

“The reality is that African-Americans are trendsetters. We are pacemakers,” Martin said. “When you look at black culture in sports, when you look at it in music, when you look at clothing, you see our impact in all those areas. When you look at all those things, we set those trends. The NFL understands that. They realize our impact on popular culture and the role we’ve had in making the NFL what it is.”

Of the top 20 selling jerseys in the NFL last season, seven were those of African-American wideouts and running backs. In many ways, they’re the best ambassadors to the league’s fan base — especially its youngest members.

Most children aren’t likely to become impassioned followers of the NFL because they’re enthralled with the complexities of route trees and blitz packages. But they’ll remember a great catch or highlight-worthy run by their favorite player. They’ll want to wear a jersey featuring that guy’s number and team colors. Black players have helped energize generations of fans for the NFL, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson said.

What’s apparent from fashion trends is that “the people who make the jerseys mean something … that’s the black fan base,” Mckesson pointed out. “You’re talking about black culture and the excitement around the games. There are more white people buying tickets. That’s true. But the black fan base makes it [the NFL] cool.”

Undeniably, African-Americans have had an outsize role in making that happen. What’s more, they’ve done it in relatively little time.

Until 1946, the NFL had an unofficial ban on black players. In the 1950s and ’60s, many top-notch African-American players entered the league. Soon, championship teams relied on them at key positions across the roster except one: quarterback. Blacks, the racist thinking went, lacked the intelligence, skill and heart to lead teams. The quarterback position was the longest-standing barrier for blacks to be fully integrated into the NFL, a fact of which black fans were keenly aware. Then came Doug Williams.

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On Jan. 31, 1988, Williams directed the greatest offensive performance during a single quarter in NFL postseason history, throwing four touchdown passes as part of a 35-point, 356-yard second quarter in the Washington Redskins’ 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. In the process, he became the first African-American passer to both start in a Super Bowl and be selected the MVP. He also became a hero to black America.

“What I always tell people is that it really wasn’t about Doug Williams. It was much bigger than just me,” said Williams, whose transcendent performance, for many African-Americans, ranks just below Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. “You had a lot of black fans who loved the NFL. They loved rooting for their teams. But for them there was always something missing.

“There was a feeling that, as fans, they would never see someone who played quarterback who looked like them. If you’re a fan and you don’t have that connection, you definitely are going to think about that. You don’t think about it all the time, but it’s definitely there. You still root for your team, but there’s part of you that’s not happy. So what happened that day was not just good for black people — it was good for the NFL.”

Today, several of the NFL’s best quarterbacks are black. In 2014, Pro Bowl Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson became the second black signal-caller to guide his team to a Super Bowl title. On the field, today’s NFL, for the most part, is a meritocracy. There’s no overt racism in roster construction that excludes blacks from playing certain positions. Black fans recognize that. There are other issues, though, that they notice as well.

Let’s get this out of the way: Players have not protested against the national anthem. Their movement, they say, is not intended to be anti-police or anti-military. They’re primarily concerned about issues of policing in their communities, institutionalized racism, access to quality education for disadvantaged children and comprehensive criminal justice reform. By sitting, taking a knee or raising a fist during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” players aim to raise awareness of these issues, spark a constructive national dialogue and, they hope, help in finding lasting solutions. In part, they’ve succeeded.

“There was a feeling that, as fans, they would never see someone who played quarterback who looked like them.” — Former NFL quarterback Doug Williams

The Players Coalition, the main group that negotiated with the NFL on behalf of protesting players, did secure an unprecedented commitment of at least $89 million over seven years to bankroll projects dealing with law enforcement/community relations, education and criminal justice reform. Moreover, the NFL has backed legislation supporting reform. Regardless of the false narrative pushed by opponents of the movement, players are committed to effecting positive change, not stoking further divisiveness, Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman said.

A member of the coalition, Norman has focused on bolstering educational opportunities for children “because that’s something that’s very important to me,” he said recently. “The great thing is that guys are out here working in different areas to be positive and help people in the community. We’re all being encouraged to find our own lane and go with it, but it’s all about what we can do to help.

“Man, it’s never been about being against anyone. It’s never been about being negative. We’re not trying to argue with anybody and make things worse. It’s just that there are a lot of problems out here. We know they’re out here because we see them every day. That’s just the truth. We can’t keep ignoring it. You’re either going to keep being part of the problem or you’re going to be part of the solution.”

Based on their response on social media, however, black fans are grading the NFL poorly despite its efforts to embrace some issues considered highly important to communities of color.

Many African-Americans have characterized the league’s funding for social justice causes as nothing more than a payoff to players to stop protesting. Although there’s no language in the agreement between the NFL and the Players Coalition that prohibits players from demonstrating, there’s no quid pro quo, the funding is roundly viewed as being “hush money.” For many black fans, the NFL’s failed attempt late last month to have Kaepernick’s collusion grievance dismissed without a full hearing provided another reminder of what they’re railing against. The league’s unsettled anthem policy also rankles them. Currently, no policy is being enforced as the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) attempt to develop something workable. But the crux of the issue, that black players may not be permitted to demonstrate during the anthem in the future, could be the final straw for fans steeped in the importance of protest in the black experience, said educator and author Marc Lamont Hill.

Hill, professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University, envisions ongoing problems for the NFL in its interactions with black fans. “Part of it is a lack of knowledge about American protest history. The fact is that black people have often used spaces to resist oppression, and they’ve done it at moments where people are viewing them,” Hill said. “And the space of the protest isn’t the target of the protest. That’s always been the case, but we somehow forget that.

“When fans come up to you and tell you how much it means to them that you’re speaking for them, it definitely means a lot.” — Giants safety Michael Thomas

“We know that Martin Luther King Jr. marched against racism … and shut down a bridge. But he wasn’t protesting bridges. He wasn’t protesting Montgomery [Alabama] buses, per se. It was the discriminatory practices. When black fans view the protests during the anthem, it’s not the flag they’re seeing.”

Of course, black people are not monolithic. While it’s true there’s strong quantifiable support for protesters among blacks, it’s not unanimous. There are some African-American fans, especially black conservatives, who view the players’ actions as being wholly inappropriate. Count Republican political consultant Raynard Jackson among that group. He believes the protesters are going about things all wrong.

“How does kneeling before a game stop one other black kid from being shot by the police? It doesn’t,” said Jackson, who has been involved in several Republican presidential campaigns. “And if you’re spending time explaining to people what you’re doing, then you’re doing something wrong.”

But among African-Americans, when it comes to expressing negative feelings about activist-players, Jackson is in the minority. Often in public, protesters receive an outpouring of thanks from black folk for their actions. New York Giants safety Michael Thomas appreciates the support.

“Well, you know that you’re going to take a lot of criticism. And I don’t care who you are or what you do, no one really likes to be in that position,” Thomas told The Undefeated last season while he was with the Miami Dolphins. “But when fans come up to you and tell you how much it means to them that you’re speaking for them, when these are people who come from the same type of community that you do, it definitely means a lot. They’re the fans who really understand what you’re trying to do. That makes it all worth it.”

The Dallas Cowboys and staff stand on the sideline during the playing of the national anthem before the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Arlington, Texas.

AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

Billed as “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys are pro sports’ most valuable franchise. They’re the guys with the Blue Star on their helmets, those five Vince Lombardi Trophies and legions of die-hard fans stretching out from deep in the heart of Texas to both coasts. The Cowboys also have the NFL’s most outspoken owner, who has no tolerance for players protesting on company time.

Jerry Jones has made Dallas the epicenter of both the protest debate and black fan resentment toward the NFL. In training camp, Jones said all Cowboys players would have to stand on the sideline during the anthem, flouting the new NFL policy that Jones voted to approve back in May but is not being implemented as the NFL and NFLPA continue to collaborate on the situation. Both privately and publicly the past two seasons, Jones, time after time with his inflammatory comments, has been one of the biggest impediments to commissioner Roger Goodell’s negotiations with protesting players. From black fans on social media, there has been fierce pushback against Jones.

Jones heads a short list of owners who have repeatedly offended black fans with rhetoric widely viewed to be grounded in racism, which, to say the least, is problematic for the league, said political strategist Symone D. Sanders. “The owners see themselves not just as owners of a team but of the bodies of the players as well,” Sanders said. “They feel they own every single thing the players do. … So although for many people of color, and specifically black people, [playing and watching] football is a big part of what we do, you can understand why a lot of black people currently feel some type of way about the NFL.”

The Cowboys’ iconic brand largely has been bolstered by their black fans, who have especially reveled in the accomplishments of the team’s black superstars through the decades. Hall of Famers such as Bob Hayes, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith made the star shine brighter. Today, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott are out front. LeBron James is a lifelong fan — for now.

But the protest debate has prompted players and fans to pick sides. Prescott’s public position has put him at odds with black fans who believe in the movement. In July, Prescott came under fire for saying he would “never protest during the anthem, and I don’t think that’s the time or the venue to do so.” The reaction on social media was swift and severe.

To many black fans, the tatted-up, whip-smart passer let them down.

Jackson, the Republican political consultant, takes a different view. Prescott spoke to black NFL fans who think like Jackson. To have the quarterback of America’s Team speak out, Jackson said, was not only fitting but needed.

“His answer was one of the most intelligent, concise and straightforward responses I’ve heard on this whole issue,” said Jackson, who pointed to polls that show most of the country views kneeling as inappropriate.

“He explained his beliefs and why he doesn’t support what his fellow athletes are doing. For anyone to call Prescott a sellout because he has a different opinion … that’s exactly what’s wrong with the black community. We all don’t think alike. And we shouldn’t all think alike. So if a black [man] like Dak Prescott gets off the reservation and says, ‘No, I have a different point of view,’ and people say he’s a sellout and an ‘Uncle Tom’ instead of engaging him on the merits tells you all you need to know.”

Hill, the educator and author, said it’s not quite that simple. He wonders whether, given the current climate in the NFL, many high-profile black players actually express their true views on such a politically charged subject, especially knowing that most owners stand in opposition to the movement. Because their careers are so short on average (the NFLPA puts the number at 3.3 years), players joke that NFL truly means “Not For Long.”

They know that time to earn a living as a player is so short, “so many of them are afraid to speak out,” Hill said. “Not because they’re afraid to tell the truth or because they love oppression or anything like that. It’s because they have a very small window to live their dream. … To speak out, you could be choosing between vulnerable people and your own livelihood. That’s tough. That’s a very tough thing to ask someone to do. Some fans understand that. They understand where we’re at right now.”

And that’s in a place black fans of the NFL have never been. This season, they’ll walk with the league along an uncharted path—trying to discover where — or quite possibly if — they still fit among supporters of a sport that should belong to everybody but suddenly seems less welcoming to folk of a certain hue. Amid the tailgating, roaring crowds, TD celebrations and jersey sales, our journey will take us from Dallas to Atlanta; Seattle to New England. It’s time to answer the question: Where does the black fan stand?