Authors: Ben Donahue, MS, MEd
Ben Donahue, MS, MEd
3304 Sierra Meadows Dr.
Bakersfield, Ca. 93313
Ben Donahue has worked for over 25 years in sports at the k-12, college, and professional levels. His experience includes athletic director, game day operations and guest relations, football operations, coach, and baseball scout. Currently, he is a public-school teacher and contributing writer for brownsnation.com and profootballhistory.com.
How the NFL Responded to the Colin Kaepernick Protests in 2016-2017 and How the League Responded to Athlete Protests During the Black Lives Matter Movement of 2020: A Sport Study, Social Phenomenological Approach
This study examined the use of social phenomenological research by examining key figures in the National Football League (NFL) after the Colin Kaepernick and George Floyd, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The author researched several responses from NFL personnel and the NFL commissioner after both events. These responses were divided into statements made in 2016-2017 (Kaepernick protests) and statements made in 2020 (Floyd/BLM protests). Using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), the author coded the statements into specific themes, and then analyzed and interpreted the themes as relating to phenomenological awareness. This approach used phenomenological analysis to better understand the latent or ‘disguised’ reason for an experience to come to light.
The results of the study show that, while the primary impetus of both protests were the same, the responses from NFL personnel were vastly different for each protest. Key to these responses were the influences of external interests that put pressure on the NFL to respond in a specific way. These external interests included government figures, NFL fans, and the public at large. The conclusions of this study suggest that in the future, the NFL should take greater care to look for the underlying causes of their employees’ concerns before assuming that they implicitly understand those concerns. The applications of the study can be used as a teaching tool for other sports organizations, including coaches and sport administrators, as they work to respond to matters of great concern and importance to their employees.
Keywords: National Football League, Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, Black Lives Matter, meaning, lived experience, phenomenon, latent
During the 2016 NFL preseason, San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, was spotted sitting before a game during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Traditionally, players, coaches, and fans stand during the national anthem in a show of unity to the flag of the United States and as a demonstration of patriotism in general. Kaepernick (who is biracial) explained after the game:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way” (1).
Days later, Kaepernick added to his original comment in explaining why he was silently protesting.
“There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards,” (1).
Prior to the next game, Kaepernick consulted with military members before the 49ers next preseason game and this time, as the national anthem was played, Kaepernick kneeled instead of sat. Throughout 2016 and 2017, NFL team owners and executives, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and even members of the United States government condemned Kaepernick for his comments, specifically mentioning that his position was disrespectful to the flag and American military service personnel. After the 2016 season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract and became a free agent. When he was not signed by any NFL team during the 2017 off-season or the beginning of the regular season, Kaepernick filed a suit against the NFL claiming the league owners were colluding to keep him out of the league due to his protest (10). The two sides eventually settled in 2019 and Kaepernick withdrew his grievance. As of the Spring of 2020, Kaepernick still has not signed with an NFL team.
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers responded to a call about a man allegedly using a counterfeit bill to pay for grocery items. The police officers who responded to the call apprehended the suspect, George Floyd. In the act of arresting Floyd, one of the officers, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd was unable to breathe and eventually succumbed to asphyxiation (15). The incident was captured on video and, soon after, the video was seen world-wide. The result was severe public pushback in the form of protests, looting, rioting, demand for police reform (as well as police department defunding) and calls for changes in public policy. Although the Floyd incident occurred in Minnesota, protests demanding for police department reform and respecting black lives sprang up in cities throughout the country. Numerous media, government personnel, and sports personalities made public statements in support of Floyd’s family and called for changing race relations for the better in the future.
One such call for change was given by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (7). During a recorded message to the public, Goodell admitted the NFL had made mistakes in the past when responding to calls for change regarding racial injustice. He then promised that the NFL would be better in the future about recognizing and communicating with minority people and groups to ensure that all voices are heard. This message was in stark contrast to the public comments made by the NFL owners, personnel, and Goodell himself after Kaepernick’s protests in 2016. Both the Kaepernick protests as well as the George Floyd protests centered on police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement.
This paper examines how NFL team owners, personnel, and Commissioner Goodell responded to both the Kaepernick protests in 2016 and the Floyd protests in 2020. Specifically, given that both protests concerned the same message, this study examines why the NFL changed its public opinion on the matter from 2016 to 2020.
To properly scrutinize the responses of both protests, the author used social phenomenology as the methodology. The Social Phenomenological approach originated with the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl (13). Husserl defined the social phenomenological process as a method of inquiry into someone’s life experiences that should be examined in the way that the experiences occur. The analysis used when studying a social phenomenon is called Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (13). IPA is concerned with human ‘lived experience,’ and posits that experience can be understood via an examination of the meanings which people impress upon it (13). Analysis in IPA involves interpretation by the researcher. For this reason, IPA studies are classified as qualitative research. Qualitative research for IPA tends to focus on meaning, sense-making, and communicative action (13). That is, it looks at how people make sense of what happens and how they assign meaning to what happens. Lastly, although the primary concern of IPA is the lived experience of the participant(s) (in this case NFL personnel) and the meaning which the participant(s) makes of that lived experience, the end result is always an account of how the analyst thinks the participant(s) is/are thinking (13). Thus, this is an IPA study of how the author analyzes specific statements from the NFL after the Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter protests to find the meaning behind the statements. The study gains importance because IPA research history does not have concrete examples related to sport and this study opens that avenue of research.
The Research Question
The research question for this study was:
How did the NFL respond to the Colin Kaepernick protests in 2016-2017 and how does that compare to the NFL’s reaction to current athlete protests during the BLM movement of 2020?
The researcher analyzed, interpreted, and expounded on the protest responses from NFL personnel to engage in a four-fold analysis. First, the author searched for specific public references to the Kaepernick protests by NFL personnel from 2016-2017. NFL personnel in this case were limited to: Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL team owners, and NFL executives that spoke on behalf of owners or oversaw signing players for their respective teams. No attempt was made to find references to the Kaepernick protests by NFL players as this would have led to a much larger study involving more nuanced data and further research questions. Second, the author then searched for NFL personnel responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. NFL personnel responses were again limited in scope to Goodell, team owners, and league executives. Third, after selecting the specific responses from both protests, the author coded the type of responses from NFL personnel regarding Kaepernick, then Black Lives Matter into specific, repeated themes. Fourth, after coding, the author then analyzed and interpreted why NFL personnel responded to Kaepernick’s protest in a specific way. Then, the author analyzed and interpreted why NFL personnel responded to the BLM protests in the manner they did.
When analyzing, the author continually reflected on the larger picture of phenomenological interpretation. When analyzing statements or experiences phenomenologically, the author aimed to understand the participants’ perspectives better (13). Also, the researcher analyzed how ordinary everyday experience becomes ‘an experience’ of importance as the person (subject or subjects) reflect on the significance of what has happened and engage in considerable ‘hot cognition’ in trying to make sense of it (13).
Essentially, the author was interested in making sense of the meaning behind the statements made by NFL personnel after the Kaepernick and the BLM protests. Specifically, the ‘in-relation-to’ part of an experience is beneficial to study in this instance due to the larger picture of the meaning behind the protests. When conducting analysis in this framework, IPA researchers use a hermeneutic circle when interpreting data. This circle involves looking at the big picture to understand the parts and looking at the parts to understand the big picture (13). In this analysis, the author studied the individual statements made by NFL personnel regarding the protests to interpret their meaning (looking at the parts) to understand the bigger picture. Then, the author completed the circle by looking at the big picture (the meaning behind the protests) and examining the statements by NFL personnel to find how they related to the overall ‘lived experience’ of the protests. When reading the analysis and results, the reader will find that the author has divided the responses into two parts. The first part analyzes the responses made by NFL personnel (participants) after the Kaepernick protests of 2016-2017. The second part analyzes the responses made by NFL personnel (participants) after the BLM protests of 2020.
[Phenomenon #1: Comments made by NFL personnel after the Kaepernick protests of 2016]
NFL personnel are agitated by Kaepernick’s protests
Initially after Kaepernick’s protests during the 2016 season, it appeared as though some NFL personnel were upset and agitated with Kaepernick. The responses from these personnel were visceral. Kaepernick’s stance and personal statements seemed to touch on a nerve for many people. The comments appeared to come from a latent, or deep-seeded, belief of what “patriotism” is on behalf of the person making the comment.
- “I don’t want him anywhere near my team,” one front office executive said. “He’s a traitor.” (5)
- “He has no respect for our country,” one team executive said. “F–k that guy.” (5)
- “In my career, I have never seen a guy so hated by front office guys as Kaepernick,” one general manager said. (5)
The researcher noticed in these statements that the participants made comments that were not reflective of the motivation behind the Kaepernick protest. What can be found is a reaction concerning why Kaepernick did not stand during the national anthem. The data suggested that the personnel seemed to miss the bigger picture of why Kaepernick protested in the first place. The NFL personnel seemed to be appealing to their basic disdain for anyone disrespecting the American flag, the National Anthem, and America itself. They were reacting to the appearance of someone who was not a true “patriot” and who was not showing proper deference to the symbols of America. In their mind, if someone did not show respect to the country during recognized moments of national solidarity, that person was a ‘traitor’ or ‘has no respect for America.’ These and similar statements made in the media at the time are reflective of the hermeneutical parts that contributed to a larger problem. Many NFL personnel stoked passions in the public because of what they perceived as the crux of Kaepernick’s protests. Since they perceived Kaepernick as unpatriotic, they voiced their displeasure and some in the public adopted that position. Of course, what is missing in these comments, and their perception in general, is that Kaepernick was protesting police brutality and awareness that black lives matter. In fact, he had consulted with military personnel about how to properly protest during the National Anthem so as not to take away from the Anthem itself. However, this aspect was largely ignored due to the initial blowback propagated by the statements.
NFL personnel support Kaepernick, but ‘we’ still need to be respectful of our country
As the 2016 NFL season ended and the league went into its offseason, some NFL personnel made statements that were somewhat supportive of Kaepernick. These personnel, which included NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell, made a point to show that they believed in Kaepernick’s position concerning specific social issues. However, these same personnel made it a point to comment about the need to show respect for America. On the one hand, they appeared to know there was substance behind Kaepernick’s position, yet they did not want to draw attention away from national pride when standing for the flag during the National Anthem.
- “The majority of owners understand this is important to the players and want to be supportive, even if they don’t exactly know how to be supportive,” one owner says. (14)
- “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem,” Goodell wrote. “We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues,” he wrote. “We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.” (14)
When examining these comments, the author could see that NFL personnel wanted to side with the position of one of their players. Yet, they also did not want to alienate their fan base by dismissing the belief that the controlling issue was a lack of patriotism. These personnel seemed torn by two extremes. On one extreme, they could see that Kaepernick’s position about police reform was a relevant social justice issue. On the other extreme, a vast majority of fans and public believed that the issue was a lack of pride in American identity. The statements made by these personnel came across as people who were trying their best to please two parties, their employees, and their fan base. Yet, because they continued to tie the Anthem and patriotism into the conversation, they did not perceive the underlying cause of the protest. The result was, instead of having a conversation about the true meaning of the protest, the conversation became a stalemate. The bigger picture of police reform was quashed in a sense by the ‘lived experience’ of the NFL personnel. In other words, the meaning of the lived experience of the protests on behalf of NFL personnel was still unclear. League personnel continued to believe that much of the Kaepernick protests was Anthem related and, therefore, they were not ready to proceed to understand the bigger picture of the protest’s true message.
Kaepernick is bad for business
As the calendar turned to 2017, the conversation continued about the true nature of Kaepernick’s protests. Although months had passed and the meaning of the protests should have been understood, the national conversation continued to center on national pride and patriotism. This stance was further exacerbated when presidential nominee Donald Trump made a statement about Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the National Anthem. Speaking to a reporter two months before the presidential election in 2016, Mr. Trump made the following statement:
“…I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.” (12)
When examining comments from NFL personnel after Mr. Trump’s comment, it appears that numerous league personnel did not want to sign Kaepernick because of possible backlash, especially after Mr. Trump was elected president. The fear seemed to be that signing Kaepernick would be bad for business.
- “NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.” (4)
- “There is no question the league is suffering negative effects from these protests,” he (Jerry Jones) would tell reporters after the Cowboys routed the 49ers. “All times, I want to do the right thing by [NFL sponsors] and their customers. I have a great responsibility to the people who support us. … We all get great benefits from having a lot of us watching our games. All of us do.” (16)
- As Jones spoke, Dan Snyder mumbled out loud, “See, Jones gets it — 96 percent of Americans are for guys standing,” a claim some dismissed as a grand overstatement. Texans owner Bob McNair, a multimillion-dollar Trump campaign contributor, spoke next, echoing many of the same business concerns. “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” McNair said. (16)
- “He can still play at a high level,” one AFC general manager said. “The problem is three things are happening with him. “First, some teams genuinely believe that he can’t play. They think he’s shot. I’d put that number around 20 percent. Second, some teams fear the backlash from fans after getting him. They think there might be protests or [President Donald] Trump will tweet about the team. I’d say that number is around 10 percent. Then there’s another 10 percent that has a mix of those feelings. Third, the rest genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]. They want nothing to do with him. They won’t move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.” (4)
What is evident to the author after examining these statements is the effect President Trump had on the meaning of the protest experience. Where the league might have been heading toward a clearer discourse regarding the meaning of the protests, President Trump’s statement muddied the waters once again. To make matters worse, several NFL owners contributed to President Trump’s 2016 campaign (6). It is evident from the statements that, once the President made his position about the protests known, the owners who backed the President did not want to subject themselves to further rebuke and scrutiny. Also, any team willing to sign Kaepernick as a free agent had to weigh the concerns of not only disapproval from President Trump, but a loss of possible revenue. Both concerns appear tied to the other. Disapproval from the President may have led to disapproval from fans and, therefore, loss of significant revenue. It is noted by the author, again, that the discourse here still misses the actual cause of the protests. The statements do not reflect consideration of police brutality or BLM. The content is only concerned with possible loss of revenue, raising the ire of President Trump, and national pride. In other words, the meaning of the lived experience of the protests maintained by various NFL personnel is primarily concerned with patriotism. The larger picture of what the protests are actually about is still unclear here due to the underlying conversations regarding the perceived, lived experience of the protests for both governmental and NFL members.
[Phenomenon #2: Comments made by NFL personnel after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020]
NFL was wrong for not listening to its players
After George Floyd was murdered in late May of 2020, people from all walks of life took to the streets and social media to show their anger at the injustice of his murder at the hands of police. Not only did citizens protest in Minneapolis, where Floyd lived, but all over the nation as well as several foreign countries. The Floyd murder touched a nerve with African Americans and other people of color. The public nature of the video, which showed Floyd’s murder, prompted a visceral reaction with Caucasians as well. For several weeks, photographed pictures and live media showed protestors raising awareness for BLM by both white people and people of color. There was unity in the cause of the protests. An ancillary effect of the protests were the changes made by corporations, businesses, and organizations as well as local, state, and federal governments. These changes included a declaration of solidarity with the BLM movement and announcements on several fronts of reversals or elimination of policies that tended to hurt and diminish people of color. There was a sense that America, particularly, was finally seeing the larger picture of the outcomes of racism within its borders. To that end, executives from sports leagues throughout the country made their own declarations of unity and understanding and promises to change the way they do business in the future. As a central part of this study, the author uses the following statement made by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made in June of 2020.
We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country. (7)
In examining Commissioner Goodell’s statement, the author notices a change in Commissioner Goodell’s reflection of the BLM protests and the Kaepernick protests. Where Commissioner Goodell frequently tied national pride to the protests’ meaning with Colin Kaepernick, any mention of national pride or National Anthem was absent here in 2020. Although Commissioner Goodell does not specifically mention Kaepernick by name, he does acknowledge that the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.” This would seem to be an obvious reference to 2016-2017. It does appear in this instance that Commissioner Goodell understands the bigger picture of the latent causes of the protests and this is reflected in his statement.
NFL owners seek to improve the racial discourse on their teams
Strangely absent for a few weeks after Commissioner Goodell’s statement were any statements from NFL owners. According to the NFL’s business model, Commissioner Goodell works for the owners. Many media members wondered aloud if Commissioner Goodell had actually received a blessing from the owners before making his statement or if this was Commissioner Goodell trying to get in front of the issue on his own. Not long after that statement, a small number of NFL owners did make public comments regarding the protests.
- “Ask the questions, ask the uncomfortable questions, and you will come to the conclusion, I hope, that I have,” Steve Bisciotti, Baltimore Ravens owner says at the end of the video. “That you don’t feel it enough and you don’t live it enough if you’re not willing to say it: Black Lives Matter. “To say, ‘Stick to sports,’ is the worst possible thing that you can feel and say,” Bisciotti says in the video. “If my players, both white and black, don’t speak out about this injustice to their communities, then they’re considered sellouts or hypocrites. If I don’t defend my players, then I’m the worst kind of hypocrite.” (11)
- “Hearing our players and coaches speak over the last two weeks has been constructive to this vital discussion,” Tennessee Titans owner Adams Strunk said in her statement. “I support our players using peaceful protests and their platforms to advance us as a nation. I would encourage those who haven’t thought about these issues before to understand the pain, anger and frustration of the black community. Black lives matter. We should all agree on that.” (2)
- “As a member of the NFL family, I recognize I have a unique opportunity to address inequity wherever it is present, expand opportunity for all who seek it, and seek justice for all who deserve it,” said Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan. “ I take that responsibility seriously. …Mindful of this, I will listen to the players in the days ahead with an exceptionally keen ear so we can work with them to make the transition from conversation to actionable plans in the name of lasting change.” (8)
- “I think and I would hope that our players or anybody would understand that if I’m standing, that does not mean I am … for racism,” Buffalo Bills owner Kim Pegula said. “Certainly, it’s not. And the same goes for our players. If they choose to kneel, or whoever wants to protest, I do not think it’s because they don’t love the country or they don’t respect our military or any of that. “In some ways we’ve come a long way, in other ways it’s been very slow. I think if you talk to the black community, they will say, ‘Listen, it’s been hundreds of years and we’re still in this place.’ This time around, people are listening more. Whether it’s deliberate or whether it’s just a part of where we are in our world, we’re listening more, and our hearts and our ears are a little bit more open than maybe they were three years ago.” (3)
Examining the comments made by the owners, only the Bills’ Kim Pegula mentions anything about national pride. However, that was in reference to the Kaepernick narrative surrounding his protests in 2016-2017. Overall, the author finds that the owners made these comments with the understanding of why the 2020 protests were important. Evident here is the fact that the owners appear to understand the gravity of the underlying, latent social impacts of racism and how it affects not only the country but their business as well. By not acknowledging these facts in 2016-2017, the owners and Goodell were part of the larger issue of ignorance to the causes of the protests. In 2020, league executives listened to the message of the protests to guide their dialogue instead of allowing governmental interests or other polarizing figures to draw attention away from the significance of the protests. From these recent statements, the author can see that the lived experience of these key NFL personnel in responding to the protests has changed from 2016-2017 to 2020. They appear to understand now what Kaepernick was trying to convey in 2016 whether they acknowledge him or not.
This study looked at how NFL executives responded to the Colin Kaepernick protests of 2016-2017 and the BLM protests of 2020. The study itself reflects social phenomenological reflection, analysis, and interpretation (13). NFL executives watched the unfolding of both protests and lived the experience in different ways. Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) examines the meanings, or sense, that people take away from certain phenomena (13).
Therefore, by using IPA, the author can deduce how league executives experienced the protests and attached their meanings of the underlying causes of the protests. They attempted to make sense of the Kaepernick protests and attributed the meaning of the protests as being anti-American. NFL executives then experienced the phenomenon of the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests and took away different meanings from these protests. In stark contrast, league executives saw what was unfolding every day on their news feed and attempted to make sense of what was happening. For NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a small number of league owners, their meaning-making of the BLM protests of 2020 changed their perspectives from only three years earlier. They appeared to attribute the meaning of the protests as a call for racial reconciliation in America. Aware that they misinterpreted the actual phenomenon of Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the 2016 season, Goodell and some owners publicly declared their intention to be more aware of the need for racial unity.
IPA not only seeks to find the meanings for participants’ lived experience of a phenomenon, it also considers the researcher’s analysis and interpretation of the participants reasoning (13). In this study, the researcher examined the responses of NFL executives after each protest to find how the executives made sense of the causes of the protests. The researcher reflected on Edmund Husserl’s original definition of Social Phenomenology as an inquiry into a person’s (or persons’) life experiences in relation to how those experiences occurred (13). The researcher looked at the shared life experience of NFL executives (in this case the Kaepernick and BLM protests) and studied how their reactions related to the protest phenomena. Essentially, the researcher attempted to find sufficient evidence of NFL executives’ lived experiences of both sets of protests and study the evidence phenomenologically. The author hopes to show the reader how the interpretation of the analysis can contribute to the larger picture of a shared phenomenon. In this case, how the interpretation can aid organizations in the future into a clearer, and honest discourse of the underlying causes of employee concerns.
Lastly, the limitations of this study can be summarized as lacking any previous IPA study in the world of sports. IPA has largely focused on phenomenon and interpretation in the field of psychology. Specifically, IPA studies can be found in articles relating to health and illness, sex and sexuality, psychological distress, and life transitions and identity (13). This study is an attempt to bring social phenomenology into the sports arena and have it served as a method of studying the many specific types of phenomena athletes face. IPA offers a unique perspective into the complex understandings of various subject matter in sports and athletics and how phenomena in our society can impact sports. This methodology can contribute much to sports and the discourse of athletic psychology if used more in the future.
After examining and analyzing the responses NFL executives made after the Kaepernick and BLM protests, the author must interpret and make sense of the reasons for the varied response types. During and after the 2016 NFL season as well as the 2017 league year, the response to Kaepernick’s protest by NFL owners centered on national pride and the National Anthem. Commissioner Goodell, league executives, and owners condemned Kaepernick for his actions and called his behavior, for the most part, un-American. Then, during the BLM protests of 2020, many of these same executives called for unity and understanding for racial unity. The contrast of both response sets is startling. Because of this, the author attempts to make sense of the change in attitude and reflection on the part of league executives given that the primary reason behind both protests were the same.
In making sense of the two response types, one could look at how the protests were initially ‘presented.’ That is, how they may have come across to NFL executives in the beginning. During the 2016 season, Kaepernick was primarily a lone voice for BLM and racial disparity. Eventually, a number of fellow NFL players sided with Kaepernick and shared in his kneeling posture during the playing of the National Anthem. However, most NFL players did not take part in this specific posture. In effect, this made Kaepernick’s protest look like a single athlete trying to take a stand on an issue that was not viewed similarly by a large number of his fellow NFL players. Exacerbating the situation for Kaepernick’s protest cause was that he displayed his personal position during the playing of the National Anthem. Kaepernick specifically chose to make a statement during the Anthem to bring racial inequality to light. However, because Kaepernick was not following the unwritten ‘rule’ of standing during a socially recognized period of an athletic contest to show patriotism, his message was turned into one of disrespect for the country instead of the actual reason, which was BLM and police department reform. NFL executives, then, erred in their meaning of Kaepernick’s protest and responded in a manner that showed solidarity with President Trump and NFL fans alike who viewed Kaepernick’s position as a betrayal to America.
Contrast this with how the George Floyd murder was ‘presented’ to the world at large. Cell phone video was taken of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and eventually killing Floyd because he was unable to breathe. The response to the video was immediate and exacerbated an already underlying problem that Kaepernick had attempted to address in 2016. Before and after Kaepernick’s protest, police officers around the country had killed numerous African American men. Among the dozens of incidents resulting in the deaths of African American men between 2014-2016 alone, names such as Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner had already received national attention (9). In the cases of Castile, Sterling, and Scott, the incidents were caught on video and viewed worldwide (9). Kaepernick’s protests were made to call attention to the disturbing causes of these deaths.
In response to the nature of the Floyd incident and the subsequent rallying cry of countless people for BLM, corporate America took notice. For NFL executives, the narrative changed drastically from Kaepernick’s protests to the 2020 BLM protests. In the case of BLM in 2020, there were no conflicting issues regarding the National Anthem or national pride to muddy the bigger picture. In effect, the national discourse was narrowed down to its essence. Apparently, upon finally understanding the meaning of the protests, Commissioner Goodell and various NFL owners acted quickly to show solidarity with their employees as well as their fan base. The lived experience of the BLM movement phenomenon for NFL executives and the public in 2020 seems to have been viewed in the same way. This was not the case when the NFL and the public experienced the phenomenon of the Kaepernick protests in 2016. In the future, sport leagues can take a page from the actions and reactions of the NFL when viewing the league’s responses after both protests. By taking time to reflect on the error of their initial interpretation of the Kaepernick protest, the NFL can now pause and more adequately consider their employees’ concerns in the future.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
In IPA there is a saying, ‘In everyday life each of us is something of a phenomenologist insofar as we genuinely listen to the stories that people tell us and insofar as we pay attention to and reflect on our own perceptions.’ Sports leagues, coaches, and athletic administrators throughout the country can examine how the NFL responded to the phenomenon of the Kaepernick and BLM protests and take great care in not repeating the mistakes of NFL executives in 2016-2017. Going forward, leaders in any sport organization should completely understand the impetus for player concerns before assuming intent of actions. Furthermore, using IPA to study the ‘communicative action’ of a phenomenon in society or sports can aid the discourse beneficially between sports executives and their employees in the future.
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