Memo to NFL Owners: You’re heading the wrong way. Stop. Read James Baldwin’s story, “Going to Meet the Man.”
If it’s not on your bookshelf, I’ll fill you in. It recounts the most brutal imaginable lynching, butchering and burning of a black American man at a picnic. Yes, a picnic. Then connect the dots from 70 years ago to now. Acknowledge the intentional, vicious and cowardly violence of the white picnickers – not a rabid, out-of-control mob, but a gathering of clear-eyed, calm and genial white American families with starved consciences. Understand that no one was following orders, that they were following their stone-cold hearts. Perhaps the story will arouse in you a premonition of the death of James Byrd on June 7, 1998 when he was dragged behind a truck by three white men in Texas until his head was severed, or the shooting of three black men by a white vigilante in Algiers Point LA on September 1, 2005, or the choking death of Eric Garner by a white police officer on July 17, 2014. Or maybe it will simply call to mind a neighbor or friend or his kid who, like my bi-racial grandson, was stopped for driving or running in the persona of blackness.
Understand that what you dismiss as vestiges of racism are not vestiges but the essence of life for many of those who love our country even so. Are your hearts large enough that you can even contemplate such forgiveness?
Unlike South Africa, the United States as a nation has never faced up to the terms and conditions of black enslavement and its enduring manifestations. How can the most terrible terribleness of our past – now memorialized in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – ever be reconciled with the beautiful, exhilarating ideals of America if you force even the awareness of our heinous shortcomings into the darkness?
You have the opportunity and burden of leadership in a major sphere of American life. Why would you shield us from men of conscience, memory and hope, and insist that we picnic with you in ignorance? Like Jesse in Baldwin’s story, you emasculate yourselves, denigrate the manhood you pretend to represent. You are affirming a social and political order that is entitled to no purchase or respect in our country. You are moving us further than ever from action that could approach ethical reconciliation with our past and the possibility of a future that isn’t poisoned by delusions of racial equity.
Banning from the field players of conscience and denying their right to publicly show – in spite of everything — their love and hope for America is a transgression against our country’s ethos.
This is your moment to announce to all fans and players alike,
“Please rise or, if you are called, take a knee for the singing of our national anthem.”
You might then regain the right yourselves to speak, even to sing, with pride of “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”