The National Football League has been building coalition with HBCUs for years, partially as an effort to sustain its workforce, partially in an effort to build brand affinity with black fans, and partially to capitalize on the movement of most professional sports to strengthen their diversity initiatives through workforce development pipelines.
For a long time, the game worked. Many of us were happy with HBCU graduates being honored at the Super Bowl, being named to prominent officiating appointments, and gaining access to sports management training modules. We liked the one-off social justice summit at Morehouse College, believing it to be a genuine response to the players’ growing concern about inequities in black communities nationwide. We were overjoyed at more players from HBCUs being scouted by and drafted into the NFL.
Seemingly, all of that was a build up for a racial goodwill counter-narrative against a plan set in motion years ago, the need to support black colleges as a point of pride against its ultimate plan to stifle black NFL players’ politics of patriotism. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced yesterday that team members at all levels will not be permitted to kneel on the sidelines, and that the extent of protest will be limited to personnel remaining in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem.
It is clear that data, politics or a combination of both have clarified for NFL owners and sponsors that the league’s best business prospects are in fans who at worst are offended by opposition to social inequity, or at best care but don’t want it mingled with kickoff. They may need black players for the best product, but that labor force and that product do not supersede the cultural sensibilities of the people who watch football, and those who pay for it to be available to the masses.
Black folks aren’t part of the equation. HBCUs aren’t part of the equation. One of the two has to take a position of leadership against this, and it should be the black colleges and universities. After all, for almost every socioeconomic privilege black folks enjoy in this country, there is an HBCU professor or student protester at the root of its growth.
It’s time for HBCU leaders, students, alumni and supporters to formally boycott of the National Football League. Not just because the black men who are among the richest and most well-known of our people deserve that kind of support, but because no great issue of social justice should ever go without a response from the 100+ institutions designed to protect the nation from its own debase tendencies, and to teach it a better path forward in compassion and context.
And because HBCUs served as a billboard for the NFL’s attempt at racial tolerance, they owe it to Black America to properly repent of their corporate sins.
We must be clear; there are many stakeholders who could be casualties of such a boycott, and we should be careful to consider them and the impact on their lives. We shouldn’t demand our HBCU football legends to be less engaged with the league. Many of our gridiron alumni depend upon the NFL to support their families, their business interests, and their healthcare more today than they did as players. They trade in their images as physically larger-than-life ambassadors who press the league to serve as a catalyst of opportunity for the schools which gave them their start as athletes, entrepreneur, and activists.
HBCU stakeholders should not go after guys like Willie Lanier, Doug Williams, James ‘Shack’ Harris, and the dozens of others with HBCU roots and NFL clout. And we shouldn’t cut off the opportunities for current HBCU players to fulfill their dreams of playing in the NFL, for which they and their families have sacrificed many hours and thousands of dollars in preparation for one look, one tryout, or one film that can help a team make one phone call that can change a family for generations.
But this isn’t a Talladega College situation, or an ‘HBCU presidents in the Oval Office’ situation. Those were moments where HBCU presidents were caught between the rock of black folks sociopolitical scorn and the hardplace of Donald Trump’s racism, with billions of dollars in potential federal and state support on the line drawn from money amassed through our taxpayer dollars. Thank God the presidents didn’t listen to us then, even if they wanted to give the impression that they desperately wanted to do anything other than the politically savvy path towards survival of the sector.
The NFL is a privately-held corporation built off of beer sales and black bodies. And if our money and our men publicly opposing the extermination of black bodies riles contempt from white male owners instead of compassion, then HBCUs should take the lead on divesting their institutional brands from anything that helps the NFL to appear more negro-friendly than they really are, or even want to be.
Its okay for black men to be commodities in the NFL as players, coaches, even as league ambassadors. Black folks accept in large part that a decent life of American affluence requires racial concession to racial, social and cultural suppression in many forms. But that doesn’t mean we’ll open our doors to house the league’s programs, send our student talent to be the league’s future mid-level managers, help the NFL maintain its workforce as more families realize that football isn’t a sport that anyone with interest in health and longevity should be playing, or to keep pace with the NBA as it zooms ahead in courting the fans of the future, which in the next 20 years will predominantly be of color.
Some of us have to be and some of us will be, but all of us don’t have to be your negroes. And certainly not if our institutions choose to lead in corporate resistance.