In the fall of 2021, the National Football League’s internal probe revealed emails sent by Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden between 2011 and 2018 that contained racist, sexist, and homophobic langauge. Within a week, the NFL and the Raiders forced Gruden to resign. This particular story might suggest that the NFL takes instances of bigotry and inappropriate behavior seriously and supports marginalized groups and victims of harassment, but the organization has repeatedly shown that it values money over justice. Have the NFL’s priorities actually changed, or is Jon Gruden’s departure from the league a fluke event?
Since 2010, the NFL has struggled to discipline personnel who have committed acts of domestic violence and has attempted to silence player-led racial justice protests. Over the summer of 2014, TMZ released a graphic video showing Baltimore Ravens running-back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee (now wife) out of a casino elevator in Atlantic City. In response to this horrific video, the NFL suspended Rice for just two games, drawing heavy criticism from fans, media, and players alike. Twitter buzzed with comments like “What if that was YOUR daughter?”, “2 games. Disturbing,” and “he should get the LIFE ban.” The online firestorm became so intense that the NFL increased its minimum suspensions for instances of domestic violence to six games for a first offense and a lifetime ban for second offenses. The next month, TMZ released the camera footage from inside the elevator, which showed Rice violently punching his fiancé. That same day, the Ravens cut Rice and the league suspended him indefinitely. The league continues to claim it hadn’t seen the second video until it was released to the public, but “sixty-one percent of football fans said they didn’t think the NFL investigated fully.”
Likewise, running-back Kareem Hunt was suspended for 8 games and released by his team after a video showed him pushing and kicking a woman. The next season, he was signed by a new team and has since fully returned to the league, sending the message that “money matters more than women.” The same season, the San Francisco 49ers released linebacker Reuben Foster after he was charged with domestic violence; the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Commanders) picked him up just 48 hours later. Evidently, teams prioritize winning football games over punishing violent offenders and deterring future incidents of domestic abuse.
Of all the NFL’s social justice conflicts, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the pregame national anthem is the most publicized. During the 2016 season, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback took action against racism and police violence, saying that he was “not going to stand up to show pride for a country that oppresses black people” and that “it would be selfish on [his] part to look the other way.” Initially, both his team and the league office disapproved of, but tolerated, Kaepernick’s public protest. Both organizations shared statements that emphasized the importance of the national anthem and encouraged players to stand, but also pointed out that America’s tenet of freedom gives everyone the choice to opt out of celebrating the country’s flag. Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, felt similarly, explaining that while he doesn’t “necessarily agree with what [Kaepernick]” was doing, he believes “very strongly in patriotism” and “[supports] players when they want to see change in society.”
After a rough start to the season, the 49ers promoted Kaepernick to the starting role. Despite average play from the quarterback, the team still finished with a disastrous 2-14 record for the season. Kaepernick then opted out of his contract for the next season, making him a free agent and available to any team willing to sign him. But no teams did. According to an anonymous general manager, some teams thought he wasn’t good enough. Others didn’t want to deal with the drama and backlash that would inevitably result from signing the quarterback, and another group of teams “genuinely [hated] him and [couldn’t] stand what he did.” A year later, Kaepernick still hadn’t been signed, despite his qualifications and playoff experience. He filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, claiming that the teams intentionally ignored him because they disagreed with his political statement. His legal team would later settle for $10 million, about the average yearly salary for a starting quarterback.
That same season, the movement spread across the league and into other sports, with a majority of teams participating. However, in the summer of 2018, the league imposed a new rule requiring players to either stand for the anthem or stay in the locker room. After negotiating with the players, the NFL agreed not to hand out fines or suspensions for violations of the new policy.
Years later, Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job despite his insistence that he is still ready to play at a high level. While Roger Goodell has publicly stated that he was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and he encourages all to speak out and peacefully protest,” he has yet to make an effort to help Kaepernick re-enter the league.
Since George Floyd’s death and the racial justice protests of 2020, the NFL has finally begun to consider social justice. “The league and its broadcast partners did all they could to show that the NFL will embrace dialogue with its players and fans about race and racism.” During the first week of the 2020 season, some players stayed in the locker room and others, “supported, this time, by the league … [kneeled] or [linked arms] during not just one national anthem but a second, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ known as the Black national anthem.’” Similarly, in 2021, Carl Nassib (who played for Gruden’s Raiders, ironically) became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Finally, the NFL’s swift and forceful handling of John Gruden’s offensive comments may be a sign that the league has turned a corner and will shift its priorities towards inclusion, instead of strictly focusing on money. As of 2022, the NFL has included messages such as “Stop hate” on jerseys and hats, and has donated $180 million to social justice efforts in the past five years. The league is still far behind other athletic organizations (such as the NBA) in its social justice efforts, but it has made steps in the right direction, and fans should be optimistic about the NFL’s future.