Lip service within the NFL
Addressing the history of racism and hypocrisy within America's No. 1 sport through the lens of former Black NFL players
By Chloe Clark
Scattered across the 100 yards of green turf 22 players run, tackle and jump. Unveiled underneath the helmets and gear of those 22 players, more than half of them are Black bodies.
But panning over from the field to the sidelines is a complete inverse, and even more so when going from the sidelines to the front offices.
The vast majority of those controlling and directing the National Football League are white men.
American history is clear that Black bodies have been used as a disposable commodity, often to benefit white men in power.
The aftermath of oppression bleeds today into different systems of society. The National Football League is not just one of them. It is perhaps an outstanding example.
Though plantations may be gone, the mentality still exists.
That mentality, in turn, fuels a simmering rage among any number of former Black players – those who fought to make the league but who now, looking back at what they gave of themselves, ask not only, was it worth it but, more – why is it the way it is?
And, in 2022, is the way that it is – right? Morally? Ethically?
This intense anger could almost surely be collected among a focus group made up of any number of Black former players anywhere in the United States – north, south, east or west. Age would not matter. Those in their 20s and 30s would give it a voice. So, too, those in their 60s.
This story is anchored by the voices of players now in their 50s who share three things in common: they all made it to the NFL; half of them them played college ball at the University of Washington in the 1990s when that program was nationally a top contender; and they are, to a man, angry.
And that anger is emblematic.
Auburn University '05
Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets 2006-2013
University of Notre Dame '94
San Francisco 49ers 1994-2007
University of Washington '90
Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders 1991-1999
University of Washington '91
New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings 1992-1994
University of Washington '90
Denver Broncos 1991-1992
University of Southern California '08
Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers 2008-2011
It is a throughline of the National Football League, across the years, generation to generation.
“Out of years of progress and years of advocating from players before me, advocates of social justice causes and civil rights leaders, for me, it's the frustration of them looking down and still seeing some of the same things, the same biases, same social justice issues, same racism that still exists,” said Ben Obomanu, a wide receiver who played college ball at Auburn and then saw six seasons in the NFL, 2007-13, five for Seattle, one for the New York Jets. “They're the same issues just disguised in different ways, coming from different angles.”
The history of the NFL dates to 1920, when 10 football teams formed in Canton, Ohio, creating the American Professional Football Association. That confederation is now known as the National Football League.
The pro game was quite different in 1920. Clubs scheduled their own opponents and could play non-league and college teams; all those games counted toward their records. Games received little attention, and hardly from the press. There were no official standings, no playoffs.
In the United States in the 1920s, baseball was king. The New York Yankees ruled. In 1927, Babe Ruth would hit 60 home runs.
The NFL took steps to advance in 1932.
Teams in the league became divided into divisions, East and West.
The new structure created more interest among fans.
With the passing years, the sport expanded nationally.
The NFL moved west in 1946 when Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves forced the league to let him relocate the team to Los Angeles, and by 1949 the LA Rams were in a championship game.
The Rams were also the first team to integrate its roster; most other NFL teams slowly integrated by the early ‘50s. That is, besides the Washington Redskins, whose owner, George Marshall, refused to sign or draft Black players.
Television, in particular the Super Bowl, would elevate the game to what is now – a de facto national holiday.
Ratings for the NFL dominate the television landscape. The NFL accounted for 41 of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of 2021, as the sports website Sportico reported, and 75 of the top 100. Games averaged a combination of 17.1 million TV and digital viewers, according to the league, and 370 billion total minutes were consumed, up 18% from 2020, the second-highest total since 2015.
As the league continued to expand, Black players became standouts but were also met with stereotypes and controversies—some of which stand to this day.
The quarterback position is one that speaks towards such stereotypes. Historically, it was whites-only.
In 1988, Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.
But why was he faced with so much controversy? The answer is “racial stacking” — the term given to describe when players are funneled into certain positions based on stereotypes.
From Pop Warner to the NFL, the down-the-middle positions of center, inside linebacker and quarterback were stereotyped into what were labeled as “thinking” spots. They were seen as too cerebral for African American athletes, who were believed to lack the ability needed to lead other players and perform under pressure.
It was not until 2017 that all 32 NFL teams had started at least one Black quarterback. That year, nearly 70% of NFL players were Black, but only 25% were starting quarterbacks.
“What you're seeing is the racism of low expectation,” said Charles Mincy, a free safety who played in 114 games for four teams after being drafted in 1991 by the Kansas City Chiefs.
“A lot of the people in charge don't really see a lot of Black people as those types of leaders … as cerebral or strategic.”
America’s No. 1 sport reflects American society itself, as powerful individuals remain in positions of authority. They thus not only stay in control of the minority but can mask the root issues with performativity while continuing the cycle of systemic oppression.
It can hardly be a surprise that such a cycle could find its way to the NFL.
The Civil War was fought over slavery. The 14th Amendment, enacted after that war, granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans and enslaved people who were – purportedly – newly emancipated. Yet the law and society have proven excruciatingly slow to change.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, recognized a doctrine that came to be called “separate but equal.” It said, in essence, that state-mandated segregation laws did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The case revolved around separate railway carriages for Blacks and white. The court said such separate compartments were OK.
It would take 58 years, until 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education, for the Supreme Court to reverse this historical wrong – to rule that equal under the law meant, indeed, equal.
For all those years, and not unexpectedly, whiteness became the basis of racialized privilege, as a 1993 Harvard Law Review report detailed. Following slavery, whiteness continued to serve as a barrier to effective change as systems of racial classification operated to protect entrenched power, according to critical race theorist Cheryl L. Harris.
The NFL’s cycle of oppression can arguably be formally dated to 1934, when owners informally agreed to ban all Black players.
In 1946, the Los Angeles Coliseum threatened to evict the Los Angeles Rams unless they signed an African American player. The Rams then became the first team to integrate, signing Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
Since then, Black athletes have taken the league to a billion-dollar plus market. Almost 70% of the league is made up of African American players.
But who ultimately runs the league?
The white men who make up 95% of management.
“The players are the product,” said Obomanu, the wide receiver who played six years in the league. “Without the players there is no league. Similar to a plantation, the workforce realized they were sustaining the business model. I see that [in the] current day in the NFL in terms of that plantation mentality.”
At the end of the day, the NFL is an organization. A corporate entity.
There is a cogent argument to be made that they are cogs in the machine.
Across the league, accounting for all positions, the average NFL player’s career, according to Statista, lasts but 3.3 seasons. An inside joke is that “NFL” stands for “Not for Long.""
Mincy said, “95% of the players you see on that field right now will not play this game more than five years, they will not leave with immeasurable wealth that they can pass down, they will most likely—just like I do—suffer from some physical limitations, disability, just pain and suffering for the majority of the rest of their lives.
“The NFL is not in the business of making sure that the folks who sacrificed for their game to be at the level that it is and rake in the billions of dollars that it is — they're not in the business of caring about those folks beyond the minute they walk off that field for the last time."
The NFL is keenly aware that careers are not only short. The NFL pension plan is based on “years of service” in the league. To qualify takes precisely three years.
Because, like many statistics, presenting the one about the average NFL career without context can prove both true and misleading, that average of 3.3 years does not tell the full picture.
It is indeed true.
But it lacks this deeper dive, again per Statista:
-The average running back’s time in the NFL: 2.57 years
-The average wide receiver: 2.81 years
-The average cornerback: 2.94
At each and all of those positions, Black players are significantly over-represented, and have been for decades, in the NFL.
The simple and obvious conclusion: those Black players don’t qualify for an NFL pension.
The pension dollars can be significant.
As detailed at the website Business Yield, players who retired in the 1980s and 1990s reportedly receive anywhere from $3,000 to $5,640 per month for every season played in the NFL. Players are eligible to receive a wide range of full benefits at age 55 1/2.
“You feel like a product, like you're just a commodity, you're not really valued as a human being, it's just what you can do on that football field,” said Donald Jones, a star linebacker at Washington who played two years – just two – in the NFL, for the New York Jets, 1992 and 1993.
Moreover, since Black NFL players make up most of the workers within that corporate landscape, they're susceptible to oppression or bias, just as a Black employee would be in an everyday workplace.
A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that Black workers tend to face more scrutiny than white workers; such scrutiny increases the relative probability of being fired and decreases the chances of having a long career with one company.
The researchers constructed an economic model based on labor market outcomes. While white workers are hired and retained indefinitely without monitoring, Black workers are monitored and fired if a negative signal is received. Researchers also found that discrimination can persist even if the productivity of Blacks exceeds that of whites.
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick experienced just that, with the NFL viewing his actions of advocacy as a negative signal to their brand – long understood symbolically inside the league and out as “protecting the shield.”
Kaepernick’s protests sparked a level of scrutiny that shows how Black athletes’ physical prowess and athletic identity is often valued above the content of their character and racial identity.
Throughout the season, Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustices, saying he would not stand for a country that he believed oppresses Black people and people of color.
Since the last week of the 2016 season, Kaepernick hasn't played in the NFL.
Many have opinions as to why the quarterback remains unsigned, but former NFL executive Joe Lockhart said the reason is Kaepernick himself: he’s controversial and thus bad for business.
“When something controversial comes up— a social issue— they don't want that to be a part of the game,” Jones said. “I think the NFL is more concerned about the dollar. If it's gonna hurt them, they don't want it.”
In 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL and league owners, accusing them of colluding to keep him from playing. In 2019, he withdrew the grievance after reaching a confidential settlement with the NFL.
Since, some believe Kaepernick voluntarily opted out of the league – that he could make more of a difference as a rights activist than as a quarterback. Others believe, strongly, the NFL outed him.
His experience has resonated, and strongly, with any number of former African American players, including Jones.
“It was,” Jones said, “very frustrating.”
In response to the murder of George Floyd, the NFL vowed change. Real change.
In a June 2020 news release, it announced it would disburse $250 million over 10 years to a variety of programs aimed at addressing “criminal justice reform, police reforms, and economic and educational advancement.”
Through an agreement with the players, it also said there would be social justice messaging on helmets and playing fields. Before, the NFL had limited such engagement on social justice to the postseason.
The practical question:
Source: NY Times
In a league that some would say has silenced Black voices, how much weight do the painted words in the end zone – “end racism” – truly hold?
“It’s hard to be successful when everything is equal,” said Mincy, “but it's really tough and competitive in an environment when there may be some prejudices that come into play.”
Injuries and concussions are certainly a part of the NFL’s culture. The game is by definition violent.
All the same, the ways in which each concussion is handled can reflect a level of oppression.
“They tried to hide the fact that there's been long-term effects of concussions. Science has been around since the ‘90s, when I was playing, but it didn't come to light until now,” Jones said “So what does that tell you in itself?
"The NFL is more about having guys sacrifice their body.”
It was only last year when the NFL pledged to halt race-norming.
According to court documents, as CNN would explain, former players were assumed to have started with worse cognitive function if they were Black. So, if a Black player and a white player got the same scores on a battery of thinking and memory tests, the Black player would appear to have suffered less impairment.
The result? The Black player would be less likely to qualify for a payout.
More than 60% of the NFL’s living retirees are Black.
“There's a lot of big-time issues brought to the forefront,” said Thomas Williams, a standout linebacker at USC who played in 15 games over three seasons in the NFL – 2008, 2010, 2011 – for three teams, Jacksonville, Buffalo and Carolina. A neck injury ended his career.
“It's allowed and probably forced the hand of the NFL to move, which is majority run by a white commissioner, white owners and that trickles down to front office officials, to head coaches and ultimately the bottom of the totem pole, which are the players.”
The movement can be traced to an August 2020 lawsuit brought by two former players, Najeh Davenport of the Green Bay Packers and Kevin Henry of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their case, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, alleged the NFL had been avoiding paying out head injury claims based on a formula that "explicitly and deliberately discriminates on the basis of race."
U.S. District Judge Anita Brody dismissed the lawsuit but nonetheless ordered a mediator to look into it. Last October, as the New York Times reported, the league and players reached an agreement to end the use of race-norming. On March 4, 2022, the judge approved that deal, formally modifying the landmark 2015 concussion agreement with former players.
Administrators of the settlement are likely now to rescore tests taken by several thousand Black former players who had submitted claims.
More than 3,300 former players or their families have sought awards for brain injuries linked to their playing time. One third of the claims have been paid to date, another one-third have been denied and the rest remain in limbo, according to an LA Times article.
The end to race norming now gives the opportunity for thousands of players to file claims collectively worth potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“In my experience, the NFL is only interested in you as long as you can help fill their coffers, and once you're no longer able to do that, you're no longer a value,” said running back Greg Lewis, who played two seasons in the NFL, 1991 and 1992, for the Denver Broncos.“They disconnect from you when you can no longer serve their purposes.”
After Jones hurt his knee, he said he was never informed about certain Line of Duty benefits available to him. He asserted that it was only after the statute of limitations had run that he was told – too late to claim his benefits.
“When you sacrifice the game to be the No. 1 sport in America… a lot of these guys were used to a certain point,” Jones said. “When you have situations where you know a player's risking his health and life, and you're keeping things hidden, or you don't care about how your employee will be able to live once they can't make that money or play again, that’s a plantation mentality so to speak.”
The league that relies on Black individuals to break their bodies every week for profit and entertainment offers Black individuals little opportunity to lead.
In January, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores sued the NFL alleging systemic racial discrimination in the hiring, compensation, and retention of Black head coaches.
“He is a man of complete integrity when it comes to coaching the game and being around the game,” said Williams, the former USC linebacker who spent two months of the 2009 season on the New England Patriots’ practice squad. That same season, Flores was the Pats’ special teams assistant.
“So, it's one of those things where you would like to think that happens to all coaches, but because of the information that's being released, it's probably not all coaches… it's just these coaches in particular.”
There just might be such differential treatment of certain coaches over others.
The NFL’s history shows that.
A 2002 report called attention to what it called the league's “dismal record of minority hiring.”
That report was released by Johnnie Cochran Jr., the lawyer who first came to national prominence in the mid-1990s by representing O.J. Simpson, and Washington D.C. labor law expert Cyrus Mehri. At that point, the NFL had been in existence for about 80 years. Some 400 head coaches had been hired. How many were Black? Six. Of those six, five had been hired since 1989.
This is an easy math problem, emphasis problem. Six of 400 is 1.5%.
To be blunt: 1.5% is a problem.
In 2003, the league instituted what it called the Rooney Rule, which mandates teams to interview nonwhite candidates for head coaching and executive slots.
“If you look at the [coaching] landscape today, it’s probably not as diverse as some people would like it...” said Bryant Young, who spent 14 years on the San Francisco 49ers and is a member of the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class. “You have to vet all the candidates...Every person, if they're qualified, deserves an opportunity to interview, and make it fair. Allow the best candidate an opportunity to win the job.”
The league said before the 2022 Super Bowl that minority coaching hires were up to 39%, up from 35%, across all coaching positions.
But that’s not what is most visible.
This is, and this is what the Flores case spotlights:
In a league in which seven of every 10 players is a minority, and after decades of avowing it means to increase diversity in its coaching and executive positions, the NFL has just three Black head coaches: Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, Lovie Smith of Houston and Mike McDaniel of Miami, who identifies as biracial.
Again, easy math: 3 over 32 is 9.3%.
“No one is really surprised when Black coaches are discriminated against or not given fair opportunities,” Obomanu said.
“We want to see ourselves not just in the locker room and the field, but in the front office, coaching staff and executive levels. That’s where some of the issues are.”
He went on:
“I’ve had friends that have recently interviewed for coaching jobs, and they do feel it is a check of the box. I feel like the [Rooney] rule should be expanded to have some teeth in order to check that the process is legitimate in itself.”
In a 2020 appearance on a Pittsburgh Steelers podcast that had gone all but unnoticed until early April 2022, former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey described how Titans ownership – that is, Amy Adams Strunk and family – told him he would get the job in 2016 before the team completed Rooney Rule interviews.
“So I sat there knowing I was the head coach in ’16 as they went through this fake hiring process,” Mularkey said, “knowing a lot of the coaches that they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that (they are doing) everything they could do and they have no chance of getting that job.”
He also said, “I still regret it.”
Nepotism and cronyism also remain another factor inherent in white dominance in management.
The NFL’s 2020 diversity and inclusion report showed that nine of that year’s 32 head coaches were related to a current or former coach in the league, whether by blood or marriage.
The same applied to the league’s 63 coordinators and position coaches, 53 of whom were white.
Of the 31 NFL owners, all but one is white.
“The people you trust tend to be people who look like you, from friends to family members, so that's how you kind of get a lot of the same people in those positions and there's no turnover,” Mincy said.
“You’ll look around and there's not many Black coaches, but there's all these Black players.”
Beyond a disconnect players may feel from the misrepresentation, some values that many owners hold would seem to be in direct conflict with the support of Black lives.
NFL franchise owners are among the most conservative of all major sports enterprises. The Federal Election Commission shows that NFL owners contributed $5,032,470 to Republican causes and $873,500 to Democratic causes during the 2016-2020 election cycles.
The issue isn't politics, the issue is the paradox. The hypocrisy. The league claims to want to end racism, yet its ownership arguably places money and support with the political party that directly feeds into the issues of systemic racism.
Where you put your money speaks great volumes.
“Whether you're Democratic or Republican, that’s the American way,” said Jones.
“But I think when you vote for leaders that discriminate, isolate and separate, that's where I have the problem. That's a slap in the face to a lot of African Americans, especially when you ban a guy like Kaep who was fighting for my people's rights. [The NFL] won't support that, but they’ll go and support someone who doesn't think too favorably of our kind.”
Creating opportunities for Black individuals to lead in the league can help not only provide true diversity, but to support Black cultural agency.
Mincy was one player in particular who was able to have a Black coach. Tony Dungy was Mincy’s defensive back coach during his time at Kansas City; Mincy ended up playing under him in Minnesota and Tampa Bay when Dungy served as defensive coordinator and head coach.
Mincy remembers one instance in Tampa when his Black defensive backs coach and assistant head coach, Herm Edwards, got into it with his white defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin.
“I had never really seen Black coaches kind of stand up and challenge the other white coaches,” Mincy said. “It was a different dynamic…Tony Dungy saw the value in having [Edwards] and knew that was an avenue for him to promote. You need people in positions of authority to make those calls.”
With the promotion of Black voices and perspectives, Black coaches often provide Black players a different, more relatable environment.
“Players yearn for those one or two instances when they do have a coach of color,” Obomanu said.
Obomanu remembers having conversations with teammates, one of whom won a Super Bowl and played in the league for 13 years, who never had a Black coach, yet at age 40 still wonders what it would be like.
Growing up in Selma, Alabama, Obomanu was lucky to have African American coaches from Pee Wee through high school. He said he was able to appreciate those moments where those coaches were able to value not only his athletic identity, but his racial identity as well.
“To talk about family and life, traveling back home to the Deep South or experiences that we see in the news and current events,” Obomanu said. “To have those relatable conversations meant a lot to me and my development to know that once I took that helmet off, here’s a true father figure that knows not just the abstract of how to coach but also just shares life experiences. I wish so many other players would have that and I think the NFL sometimes discounts how important and how valuable that would be for the growth of the league.”
He also said, “You have to do more than just the symbolisms and the performative theatrics.”
Even with the implementation of newer programs like minority coaching programs, internships, and fellowships, Obomanu says there's still more the NFL has to do.
“It seems as if over the years, the NFL has done a lot to make sure that these core values – symbols, commercials, theatrics on the field – are enough to say ‘We care. Here you go, this is for you all to see.’ But I think that's where the disconnect comes from. Once they start making connections to those core values, then those programs, benefits, and statistics will show they are living their truth.”