Amid the gaudy spectacle and commercial blitz of the Super Bowl, a somber advertisement appeared that featured, to our surprise, a Palm Beach County story, a story that, unfortunately, could have taken place anywhere in the United States.
It was the story of Corey Jones, the 31-year-old black man whose car broke down at an intersection of I-95 in the lonely after-midnight hours of Oct. 18, 2015, and who was shot to death by an undercover officer of the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department who did not identify himself.
Jones, as it happens, had a cousin, Anquan Boldin, a Pahokee native who became a star wide receiver in the National Football League. And now that retired player, impelled by the injustice of Jones’ death, is heading an effort by the NFL called “Inspire Change.”
“Inspire Change” is an initiative that lets current and former players receive grants for their causes as decided by a committee of players and team owners. The league says it began dispersing money for fighting social injustice in April 2018.
But the NFL did not tell the whole story in that commercial.
For, while the game was underway between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, and the league was basking in its cultural and corporate dominance, the 49ers’ former quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained blackballed after leading the protests that pushed the NFL into the controversies and ultimate compromises that produced such a thing as “Inspire Change.”
Or, as writer Samer Kalaf put it in an essay for the Washington Post: ”‘Inspire Change’ is a shameless strategy for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s owners to pretend that they not only supported the movement to bring attention to police violence and systematic oppression all along, but that they were really the progenitors of the whole idea.”
It was Kaepernick, remember, who started it all by refusing to stand for the national anthem during the 2016 preseason. He made his intent clear. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told an interviewer.
What was a public-relations headache for the NFL became a full-blown crisis when President Donald Trump began tweeting about it in September 2017, twisting the protest against police brutality into an attack on patriotism and the U.S. Armed Forces. At a rally, he roared that team owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who joined the protests. His audience cheered.
And with that presidential gasoline added to the fire, the controversy soon consumed the whole country.
As more players joined the protests, voices threatened NFL boycotts. Owners got nervous.
In one response, owners started working with a group called the Players Coalition, co-founded by Boldin, to financially support causes important to players. Kaepernick broke ranks with them in November 2017, seeing the NFL’s offer as hush money.
Kaepernick stopped playing for the 49ers after the 2017 season. He hasn’t played a down since, though many statistically inferior quarterbacks have been hired. There’s little doubt that the NFL has shunned the player, his politics too unsettling for the business of pro football; the league even settled a collusion lawsuit with him.
It takes a special kind of hypocrisy to celebrate the activism of players who are concerned about the mistreatment of minorities by police departments while at the same time exiling and erasing the player who was brave enough or foolhardy enough to use his celebrity to make a public issue of it in the first place.
Something else happened on Super Bowl Sunday that pertains to this story.
At Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, President Trump hosted a party. The crowd watching the big game on TV stood for the national anthem. While others held hands over their hearts, Trump waved his arms as if conducting a band, fidgeted, pointed in various directions, adjusted his chair. It was all captured on video.
Back when Trump was excoriating NFL players who kneeled in protest, he told Fox & Friends: “You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem, or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
To Trump, those rules apparently apply only to other people, especially to athletes of color. Having ginned up outrage a couple of years ago over players’ supposed lack of patriotism, he now shows that it was all shtick to boost his political brand.
As for the NFL, it clearly wants to earn feel-good points for sponsoring efforts to fight social injustice.
But the league seems to live in fear of the man at Mar-a-Lago, who on Super Bowl Sunday made light of the national anthem.
And it has made a pariah of the man who took the anthem so seriously that he sacrificed his career to express a point about unmet promises in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This editorial first appeared in the Palm Beach Post on Feb. 7.