Brian Clarke
Author

Hands Up, Don't Shoot: The NFL And Protest Politics

Aug 22, 2014 10:31 AM EST

While most of the football world was preoccupied with the third digit on Johnny Manziel’s right hand, a more resounding gesture occurred prior to the Washington-Cleveland preseason game. The Washington secondary's safety Ryan Clark led the team onto the field in the signature pose of the Ferguson protest “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” The gesture lasted less than 10 seconds, but through Twitter and Instagram, images of the silent protest made its way around the Internet.

“We have voices, even though sometimes we don’t like to see it that way, we do have voices. We got the opportunity to do something.” – Ryan Clark (Washington Post)

Despite the tremendous popularity of the sport, NFL players are the least recognizable athletes in American sports. Over the years, activism and reactions to social injustice have largely fell on the shoulders of players in baseball and basketball. With the exception of maybe Jim Brown, football players have largely been left out of social-protest politics.

It’s the nature of the sport; the men wear masks and armor making them virtually indistinguishable from one another. They’re relegated to a number, position and a role. It’s a veil that strips them of their visibility. Their individual identities are discarded as a result of the sport, which makes their impact in social activism fairly difficult. 

The football activist is the invisible man of sports. We’re sure he exists, but can’t seem to find him. The activist exists in many of the athletes, filled with all the colorful dynamics and complexities of American experience. However, the NFL prides itself on uniformity and its teams reinforce that notion by labeling players who seek to be anything more than a football player as a “distraction”.  

This mutes any attempt of expression outside of the confines of the game itself. He’s needed to be invisible in order to keep the reputation of his team and more importantly, his league, pure. But every once in awhile, an opening occurs and the players can subtly unmask for a cause. 

“That could have been any one of us. That could have been any one of our brothers, our cousins, just anyone.” – Ryan Clark (Washington Post)

African-Americans in the NFL feel the consequences of their invisibility in a very unique way: they lose the privilege that comes with athletic fame. While few players get to become household names, even fewer are even discernable to your average American. When Ryan Clark expresses that it “could have been any of us,” it speaks to the reality that NFL players don’t get the benefit of the doubt that comes with fame.

For some, that means not getting entrance to an exclusive club, for others it means being susceptible to the degradation of an ethnic minority. Players like Ryan Clark and Pierre Garcon, are just as susceptible to the harassment, unwarranted stops and the bad blood that remains so prevalent between African-Americans and the police. 

(For those who believe that famous athletes aren’t subject to the zeitgeist’s social ills, just search stories about Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell if you need examples of athletic privilege falling short of granting an athletic social privilege.)

Even if some players do have the privilege to escape the criminalization of the young African-American male, their relatives don’t. Many of their relatives are from neighborhoods like Ferguson, where tensions between the residents and police remain high.

The silent protest of the Washington players is a reminder that Ferguson is not a situation that has occurred in a vacuum, rather it is a wide reflection of the deep pain and mistrust that remains with African-Americans and American law enforcement.  

‘“We just wanted everybody to know that we support Michael and acknowledge what happened in Ferguson," Meriweather told USA TODAY Sports’ Jim Corbett. “Crazy things happen every day in this world.’” (USA Today

The death of Mike Brown for many is a reminder of the dangers of just being just another young black male.

While that fear of being profiled and ending up like Trayvon Martin may have been a reality for Dywane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, inspiring the team’s protest, their fame allowed them a certain privilege that shields them from random police harassment.

For Clark, Brandon Meriweather, Garcon, Aldrick Robinson, Evan Royster and others, the danger is still firm, whether it’s in a neighborhood like Ferguson or a wealthier community. Crazy things do happen every day, but those crazy things happen to be related to the systematic destruction of the communities many of these players come from. Privilege only goes so far. 

The NFL works tremendously hard to squash legitimate controversies created by their own actions. They work just as hard to ensure, through the penalizing of any individual branding on the field, that players don’t create a subversive identity too strong for the league to handle, which is why I don’t expect to see many more united responses from NFL players. 

Ferguson isn’t seen as a national tragedy, though that debate is ongoing. This isn’t a cause the NFL wants to see mixed in with the coverage of their sport. National tragedies allow for widespread empathy and unity, and this tragedy has done very little to unite Americans over the past few weeks. Rather, it has been hyper-polarizing. The Ferguson protests and the subsequent protests around the country have been a reminder of the ever-lurking invisible man that exists both in this country and within the NFL. Fans will do their part to keep the protests away from the sport so that we get back to focusing on the games, which is absolutely their right. 

Except fans claim to hate mixing politics with their sports, while at the same time espousing their socio-political beliefs and biases through each and every sports discussion. The same people who will shout and demand you stick to talking about sports will also ask you to ignore the politics to ensure that the political status quo remains the same.

It’s the paradox of sports, it’s what allows the politics of the invisible athlete to remain muted and it’s the invisible athlete that keeps the red, white and blue of the NFL shield pristine.