NFL’s actual practices belie gestures of racial healing

Courtesy of Charles Matthews Dr. Robert Turner

The Minnesota Vikings, along with the rest of the National Football League this season, are participating in social justice “messaging” such as social justice decals on players’ helmets, on-field signs, PSAs. Even the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” will be played before games as part of the league’s 10-year, $250-millon commitment to combat systemic racism.

Yet this is the same league that Whiteballed Colin Kaepernick in 2016, now going on six seasons, for kneeling during the U.S. national anthem to call attention to racial and social injustices. It’s the same league that historically operates a slave-owner environment where the majority of owners are White men and 70% of its players are Black.

The NFL until recently practiced “race-norming” to keep them from rightfully paying former Black players for concussion-related injuries. Race-norming is a practice that would deem Black players worse in cognitive functioning than Whites and therefore presumed that Blacks suffer less impairment from playing.

“[Race-norming] is an inherently anti-Black form of scientific racism that is evidence of slavery’s afterlife,” co-wrote Notre Dame Professor Tracie Canada and Chelsey R. Carter in a July Scientific American article.

Robert Turner II, a George Washington University assistant medicine and health science professor, wrote in his 2018 book “Not For Long: The Life and Career of an NFL Athlete” that Black overrepresentation in the NFL is problematic, and for its Black players doubly problematic.

“I have a full chapter around race, in terms of the way athletes either assimilate or take an Afro-centric approach to these issues,” said Turner in a recent MSR phone interview. A former college and pro football player from the 1980s, Turner added, “There’s actually today probably more pressure on the Black athletes than there has been in the past.”

What he didn’t know then, he knows better now, Turner admitted. “I am trained as a sociologist and to see things, to take a critical examination of how do people make decisions. I didn’t recognize some of the issues…until much later, until and well after I finished the game.

“I started playing football in the 70s and played throughout the 80s,” said Turner. “I never saw it from a capitalist lens, from a lens of thinking about how people were perceiving my Black body, or what the Black body meant in all of society. I was just a kid thinking about how much I love the game.

“But once you start to think, you peel the layers back and you start to look at it a little differently,” continued the professor. “You start to understand instead of asking the question about athletes being exploited in football. You start to think about what is football and what it truly represents in society.”

But to expect the NFL to go cold turkey and fully abandon its racist ways is perhaps unthinkable: “We’re going to see an ongoing tension.. The NFL owners are in lockstep—they protect the shield [the league’s logo] and are not very progressive when it comes to racial politics,” stressed Turner. 

“The fact that…70% of the players in the league are Black, I think it’s going to be a really tough time for the management and owners…to find the right balance with what they’ve always done, and that’s protect the shield.”