Sports and Politics collide: N.F.L.’s response to the rise of Social Justice


With the sociopolitical turmoil of our country and widespread protest over racism and police violence, the new National Football League (NFL) season starts against a backdrop of extensive protests from other major sporting leagues and controversy over the NFL’s history of punishing players for bringing politics to the field. However, NFL players and the organization made a statement on the night of the season opener that they are in full support of pursuing racial justice and they will continue to shine a light on police brutality against African Americans throughout this football season. 

“The NFL stands with the Black community, the players, clubs, and fans confronting systemic racism,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, “We will not relent in our work”.

After the George Floyd protests, the NFL made the decision to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before the “Star-Spangled Banner” during Week 1 of the season. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is known as the Black national anthem. The song’s significance in Black American History starts in the early 1900s when Black rights activist Booker T. Washington and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recognized the song as the official African-American anthem. The song continued to grow in power, being sung in Black churches and at graduations at Black universities. The NFL’s decision to play the song before their games expose millions of Americans to a song that has been significant to Black culture for longer than a century. 

The social and political turmoil is also reflected on football fields. The NFL announced that unifying messages such as “It Takes All Of Us” and “End Racism” will be stenciled in end zones. In addition, the NFL decided to embrace the efforts of players to fight against social injustice by following the NBA and Major League Baseball’s (MLB) lead and allowing players to peacefully protest on the sideline. 

However, the Black Lives Matter movement in football goes far beyond the NFL front office’s response. Players have been taking advantage of this opportunity and speaking out against racial injustices on their own terms. During the season opener, the Houston Texans decided to stay in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem in an attempt to avoid a debate on whether to stand or kneel during the national anthem and to emphasize the significance of systematic racism. 

Among many other players, New England Patriots quarterback, Cam Newton, made a memorable statement in his debut by wearing customized Under Armour cleats bearing anti-racism messages such as, “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say Their Names,” both phrases are used by Black Lives Matter protesters. They signify the necessity to recognize the injustices that Black Americans and the police brutality victims face in the current political climate. 

It is important to recognize that such demonstrations have outraged fans and league owners in previous years. It is an understatement to say that times have changed since 2016, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, first took a knee in protest during the national anthem. Kaepernick, who was 28 at the time, was released after his expiring contract and blackballed by the NFL because of the controversy that surrounded his peaceful protest of the national anthem.  

In 2017, Goodell said in a press conference that “everyone should stand for the national anthem”, specifically referring to Kaepernick, amongst other players who kneeled during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. He referred to their protest as anti-American and said that the NFL is trying to “stay out of politics”. 

The League and Goodell have since apologized for their actions towards Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. Kaepernick sued the NFL in 2019 over colluding with teams to not sign him, and the League settled for an undisclosed amount. 

Now in 2020, Roger Goodell has admitted that he was wrong in his statements regarding the NFL and Kaepernick’s stance. In his appearance on Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man hosted by Emmanuel Acho, Goodell acknowledged Kaepernick saying that he wished he and the League had listened earlier, “Kap, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.” 

Most fans are in support of the NFL’s actions to promote Black Lives Matter. However, some claim that athletes should “stick to sports”, and that football is not a place for politics. According to The Washington Post, six in ten Americans believe that professional athletes should be able to use their platforms to express their views. 

The NFL’s support towards racial justice and their fight against police brutality have given many players the opportunity to speak out against racism. The N.F.L.’s huge platform will be able to educate many on the injustices that Black Americans face, and raise awareness for the victims of police brutality. 

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Belson, Ken. “N.F.L. Season Kicks Off With Players’ Protesting Racism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Sept. 2020, 

William, Kevin B. “’Everyone Should Stand for the National Anthem,’ NFL Commissioner Goodell Says.” CNBC, CNBC, 18 Oct. 2017, 

Guskin, Emily, and Rick Maese. “Most Americans Support Athletes Speaking out, Say Anthem Protests Are Appropriate, Post Poll Finds.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Sept. 2020, Acho, Emmanual. “National Anthem Protests Pt.1 Ft. Roger Goodell | Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man Ep 8.” YouTube, YouTube, 23 Aug. 2020,