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The NFL Has Always Been Racist

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In early February, the Washington football team announced their new name, the Washington Commanders. In the summer of 2020, they announced that they were retiring their name and logo, after decades of criticism that the name was an anti-indigenous slur

This is only a fraction of racist history of the team, and the National Football League (NFL) in which it resides. George Marshall, the founder of the team, reportedly conspired with other owners to bar Black players from the league in 1933. In 1962, when every team but Washington had signed a Black player, Marshall finally relented when threatened with a civil rights lawsuit. Marshall was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. 

The NFL is a league born in racism, which has persisted through modern times. Throughout the years, the league has maintained the status quo and failed to take action when there were opportunities to combat racism and create positive change. 

For many years, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell consistently supported the team’s predatory owner, Dan Snyder, in the decision to maintain their old name. In 2013, Goodell said that the NFL would continue to ensure that the team represented its “strong tradition and history.” Washington is a storied franchise, but the offensive name never should have been retained because of that. Citing these factors as reasons for upholding offensive traditions and imagery, a la Confederate flag supporters, was incredibly insensitive and racist.

More recently, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores initiated a lawsuit against the NFL and the Broncos, Dolphins and Giants in early Jan. 2022. He asserted that the Broncos and Giants held interviews with him without any intent of hiring him in order to satisfy the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which stipulates that teams must interview at “least one minority candidate” for a head coach or general manager vacancy. 

Flores’ lawsuit is a reminder that out of 32 teams, none of the league’s majority owners are Black, there are only three Black general managers, and only one Black head coach. In 2021, 70.7% of the NFL’s players were people of color. The fact that so many of them are severely underrepresented in the league’s leadership positions is a great disservice, as they are the ones who make the league’s existence possible. Flores has also proved that the Rooney Rule has been inadequate, but the NFL has made a substantial change that should increase its success.

The NFL instituted a form of affirmative action in 2020 by modifying the Rooney Rule. Teams that hire a minority head coach or executive are given two third-round picks in the two subsequent drafts. By making this change, the NFL is acknowledging that the Rooney Rule has not been effective – perhaps for the reasons that Flores is suing the NFL – but they are taking a good measure to promote diversity in NFL front offices and head coaching positions. It’s unfortunate that owners need to be given such a hefty incentive to hire minority candidates, but it’s a necessary step to take. The NFL is not ruining its competitive integrity, either, as every team is permitted to benefit from this rule change.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback (QB) Colin Kaepernick famously knelt during the singing of the national anthem in the 2016 season. He said that he refused to stand for a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.” After that season, Kaepernick was blackballed by the league’s owners and has been out of the NFL ever since, but NFL players kneeling during the anthem is now commonplace

Some may believe that Kaepernick’s rejection by teams around the league was legitimate, but he led his team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013 and put up relatively impressive statistics in his career. The 49ers were 1-10 in games that Kaepernick started in 2016, but he should have been considered as a compelling backup QB option, at least. 

When quarterbacks are widely categorized as “pro-style” or “dual-threat,” it gives the impression that quarterbacks that do not conform to a certain style of play are not suitable for the NFL. Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson epitomizes the dual-threat play style, but he has been unfairly labeled as a gimmick through much of his career, as if the points that the Ravens’ offense scores are somehow less legitimate or valuable. In comparison, Saints QB Taysom Hill is admittedly more versatile, but he is revered as an offensive gadget. Why isn’t Lamar Jackson as respected for his outstanding rushing ability as a QB?

Goodell spoke on former NFL player Emmanuel Acho’s podcast, “Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man”, and said that he wished that his league had “listened earlier” to why Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel. Fortunately, Goodell recognizes that it’s not just the thought that counts. Actions speak louder than words. To the NFL’s credit, they have contributed more than $180 million to social justice causes since 2017. As Goodell acknowledged, those efforts are well overdue, but there is still a long way to go in terms of addressing and rectifying the NFL’s deeply-rooted issues relating to racism. 

Daniel Waters is an Opinion Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. He can be reached at