NFL, Jon Gruden and Social Justice: It Was All an Illusion

NFL, Jon Gruden and Social Justice: It Was All an Illusion
The FBI building is named after J. Edgar Hoover. Photo courtesy of The Commons
The FBI building is named after J. Edgar Hoover. Photo courtesy of The Commons

The most famous director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, touring and evaluating southern policing in the 1940s, observed, “There are some trigger-happy policemen down here.”

We know now that Hoover’s observation could have easily been applied to policing nationally during the multiple decades following World War II. Numerous cases of police brutality were seen in conflicts during the civil rights movement, particularly in Birmingham and Selma.

More recently, this brutality has been viewed more widely with the widespread use of private citizens’ cell phones, a la Rodney King in Los Angeles on March 3, 1991.

In April 1992, the officers involved in beating King with their nightsticks were acquitted, and Black anger exploded with six days of rioting with 50 people dying in the conflagration.

Recently, the rash of police killings of unarmed Black men, including the knee-pressed-in-the-neck murder of George Floyd (May 25, 2020), resulted not in urban riots, but rather in mass protest marches nationally and internationally.

Two major sports leagues, the NBA and the NFL, permitted each team and individual players to wear politically inspired wording or social justice logos on their uniforms, helmets and fields of play. On the last point, all NFL end zones have both “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism.”

During the 2020 pro football season, in response to the killing of Floyd, practically every player had social justice lettering on the back of his helmet. These NFL-approved logos read “Black Lives Matter,” “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” “Inspire Change” and “Say Their Stories.”

However, these logos are hypocritical and an attempt by NFL owners to legitimize their Jim Crow league as they have excluded a Black man for bringing attention to the inequities within racialized policing in America. In fact, these logos reflect the activist point conveyed by Colin Kaepernick.

Many are boycotting NFL games since the 32 owners decided to re-create a Jim Crow league by “White-balling” Kaepernick from the league. Kaepernick is obviously a qualified player whose “crime” was taking a knee while the national anthem played to symbolically draw attention to the police killings of unarmed Black citizens.

Think about the same scenario if the famous woman soccer star, Alex Morgan, had taken a knee for breast cancer awareness. There would have been a degree of grumbling but not exclusion from her chosen occupation. Interestingly, the NFL adorned certain goalposts with the logo, “Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer.”

However, denying a Black man’s right to earn a living and provide for his family smacks of the exact tactics employed by Jim Crow segregationists to impede and stop the civil rights movement. In fact, Hollywood films have explored the dilemmas of Black domestic workers who became activists and lost their jobs as a result.

The Jim Crow decades of the 1950s and 1960s lead one to the suppressed history of racial exclusion by the NFL. Both professional baseball and pro football had a “color bar.”

Whereas MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson and players periodically wear his number, “42,” pro football keeps its dark past suppressed by not recognizing Bill Willis, Kenny Washington, Marion Motley and Woodie Strode, who integrated pro football in March 1946, almost a year before Jackie Robinson’s celebrated event in April 1947.

White violent racist resistance to sports integration led Strode to state, “If I have to integrate Heaven, I don’t want to go.”

The material basis of White privilege and interests was the social condition and social relations of keeping Black workers and athletes as workers, albeit well-paid workers, in fear. With a weak players union, only a few players took a knee in support of Kaepernick, including Eli Harold, Eric Reid, Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson. In addition, Robert Quinn gave the Black Power fist during the anthem.

As with Kaepernick, Reid no longer plays in the NFL. It is Reid who appears with Kaepernick and Harold kneeling in the iconic photo. On this point, another noted photo shows Michael Thomas leading his Miami Dolphin teammates kneeling while the anthem was being played in 2016.

In October 2021, a 2011 e-mail surfaced from current Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden, then working for ESPN, describing a Black man, DeMarcus Smith, as having rubber-type lips like “Michelin Tires.” At the time, in 2011, Smith headed the players union—the NFLPA. Additional e-mails ending in 2018 had further Gruden comments deemed racist, sexist and homophobic.

The 32 NFL owners, like Gruden, live and breathe a racist, antisemitic, sexist and class culture no different than those young White men marching in Charlottesville chanting, “You Will Not Replace Us” or Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson promoting “replacement theory,” first put forth in 1915 by Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race. Grant was referring to eastern and southern European immigrants replacing “WASP” Americans, and Carlson was referring to Haitian and Mexican immigrants.

During the first four weeks of the 2021 NFL games, only three to five players on each team wore social justice logos. Although a few did wear “Black Lives Matter” or “End Racism,” most wore the more acceptable “Inspire Change.” Strangely, neither the Baltimore Ravens nor Pittsburgh Steelers had any social justice logos on their helmets.

Moreover, the Denver Broncos have removed the name of Elijah McClain from their helmets. McClain, a 21-year-old Black man, was killed by the Denver area Aurora police and EMT personnel the year before.

A number of players have removed any lettering whatsoever from their helmets. My interpretation of their attitude is, “Just shut up and dribble, run, shoot or pass the ball.” This attitude is clearly an apolitical and backward but safe mentality.

As stated earlier, two of the major sports leagues, responding to police misconduct, created social justice initiatives that symbolically convey the idea that Kaepernick was right in his advocacy. However, Kaepernick is still “White-balled” from the Jim Crow NFL.

Clearly, owners feel it is good to appear to support “Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.” Importantly, all locker rooms have gay players and players whose ultra-right-wing politics embrace White supremacy and who have been videotaped using the N-word. This motley assemblage could be any pro team, and they still play together to win games.

They are workers who do their jobs. Therefore, why not be an advocate for social justice?

Sadly, the NFL has chosen “Jim Crow” Kaepernick. Therefore, many, including myself, have decided to boycott this Jim Crow league. Given that the league has banned one Black player for political reasons, then any Black activist player can be likewise banned—thus my moniker, a Jim Crow league.



  • Malik Simba

    Dr. Malik Simba is professor emeritus of history and Africana studies at Fresno State and has taught at the University of Minnesota, Binghamton University and Clarion University. His book, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter, is used widely. Dr. Simba serves on the board of, the Google of the Africana experience.

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