The NFL\’s apparent new wokeness might be performative, but it still matters

We emerged from the holiday weekend with a newly woke NFL. I think, in time, we’ll find that it will matter.

On July 2, a league source told The Undefeated that the NFL will be playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song commonly known as the Black national anthem, prior to the kickoff of each game played during the season’s opening week. It is, as I noted, a significant break from the NFL’s “gloomy past,” and just one of a variety of measures the league is considering designed to express solidarity with the victims of police violence. Also under consideration, adding a list of the names of victims, like George Floyd, on player jerseys or helmets.

If you’re surprised by the capitulation, you’re not alone. I covered the story here.

Barely one day later, the Washington NFL team announced it was prepared to re-think its name and mascot, long derided as racist.

The team issued a press release distributed via Twitter announcing a “thorough review of the team’s name,” which “formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks.” The statement cited “recent events around our country and feedback from our community.” Native American mascots can be found on playing fields at schools all over the country, and their imagery has been hurting people for a long time.

“Native Americans are the only group in the United States subjected to having a racial slur as the mascot of a prominent professional sports team,” wrote Michael A. Friedman, the clinical psychologist who compiled a 2013 report commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation titled “The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot.” The marketing machine that amplifies the name, “not only repeatedly exposes Native Americans to a harmful stereotype, but also implicitly condones the use of this term by non-Native Americans, which if performed on an interpersonal level would possibly constitute harassment or bullying.”

If this is performative wokeness, I’m fine with this. If nothing else, it’s a rallying cry.

It took mere moments before the news broke about the Black national anthem — and the speed of millions of Google searches — for #BoycottTheNFL to trend on Twitter. But alongside the racist discomfort was an awakening. Come opening week, millions of NFL fans might learn about the poem that became a song that has meant perseverance, dignity, and hope to generations of Black families. Those same viewers would see the views of Black players and plenty of fans publicly respected, along with Black lives, more broadly. And it doesn’t matter if a white man, in this case, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, meant it or not when he said, “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”

He said it. Now, the song. The name. The marketing machine. Everything is now in play.

What matters now is what happens next.

Now that the first wave of big announcements is winding down, raceAhead will be turning our attention to the nuts and bolts of the work that must happen in the longer term.

But what comes immediately next is a tired football reference, right? So, suit up, everyone. And plan to leave it all on the field.

Ellen McGirt

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