Why Is the NFL So Far Behind the NBA on Social Issues?

The panel looks at the underlying factors and differences between the NBA’s and NFL’s stances on progress and protest.

Ever since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem, we’ve seen just how different the NBA and NFL are in their stances towards social issues. As a New York Times article highlighted, there are several structural explanations for why the two leagues differ,  including the NFL’s lack of guaranteed contracts, the way the leagues market themselves, and the visibility of players. Which factor do you think most impacts the way the players engage politically? 

Serge Leshchuk, GSC Staff Writer 

Where do I even start? The fundamental difference is the flat-out face recognition of the athletes. This is the point that has been beaten to death already across a variety of think-pieces in the media, so I’ll be brief. Put any team’s (that isn’t the Eagles) offensive or defensive lines in front of me without helmets, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you who is who or what teams they play for. Do that with the bench lineups in the NBA, and I’ll at least be in the ballpark.

The NFL has constructed its identity around a team effort and concealing the players from the public as much as possible, whether intentional or not. It’s effectively erased individual identity for the most part, and the most recognized players — usually the quarterbacks — have also remained white, in a sense keeping the NFL as a “white sport” in the views of many critics of the anthem protests (even though that assertion is wildly inaccurate). This erosion of personality is rooted in more than just being a sport, and it’s allowed people to distance themselves from the “player as a human being” concept.

Beyond the visibility and recognition of the players, we also miss one salient difference between the two leagues. The NFL is old money; it’s the establishment running into the new times. They were popular way before the NBA, and it’s long been one of America’s top weekend preoccupations to watch football. Accessible and available throughout America, it was the unifying factor for a long time with a growing and captivating audience. The NBA is the child of the modern times. And, even the growth of the NBA is rooted in individualism itself — it’s part of the culture, while the NFL will always be a “faceless” sport, at least in conception.

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Without Michael Jordan, the NBA doesn’t get its popularity surge; without Allen Iverson, it doesn’t maintain a tight, connected symbiosis with popular youth culture. As the NBA continues to grow its fan base, it establishes a give-and-take relationship with the world around it, and it grows — organically through the adolescence of 2000s to where we are now. As its popularity grew, the league also adopted the views and ideologies of the increasingly young crowd that constituted both its players and its fans. The NFL wants to preserve the status quo while the NBA evolves with its surroundings, and that’s the fundamental difference.

Gord Randall, GrandStand Central Staff Writer

One of the biggest differences is the parts of the country that provide the backbone of each respective sport. The NFL is driven by some of the most right-wing parts of the country — the deep south and Texas. That is the backbone of football in America.

Basketball, on the other hand, is centralized around urban environments, and more relevant, in more progressive areas. That’s a big part of what this comes down to. The NBA doesn’t have as much to worry about in their bottom line by supporting their athletes. The NFL, on the other hand, has a lot more rednecks to piss off. This is further evidenced by the feedback on current matters. You don’t see the president or other right-wing politicians making a ton of noise about various protest initiatives NBA players take part in… yet, the slightest wrinkle in the obedience of football players becomes a hot-button issue that has dragged on for almost two years and counting. That is the crux of this issue for me.

Vashti Hurt, Editor-in-Chief at Carolina Blitz

If I had to answer this question with one word, it would be “unity.” NFL players have no unity. There’s no threat to games, and therefore, the owners’ pockets. When the Donald Sterling debacle happened, there was a legitimate threat that players, including top stars in the league, would not play. That forced the NBA to act swiftly and sternly (no pun intended). The same threat does not exist in the NFL. Top influential players like Russell Wilson or Cam Newton are not the type to publicly take up social causes. On the flip side, LeBron James and Stephen Curry have no problem with doing so.

It’s important to note one major difference that may hinder this unity. There are 1,696 players in the NFL, versus 301 NBA players. It’s much easier to get 301 players on one accord than 1,696, but that doesn’t give NFL players a pass. If even half of them decided to truly stick together to fight a system that is set up to leave them physically debilitated, financially broke and in addition strip them of their American rights, it would send shock waves through the league and a message to owners.

Simply put, machismo NFL players need to use some of that aggression and power they use on the field to stop getting punked off of it.


Erika Fernandez, Writer at Black Sports Online

I think the biggest difference between the NBA and the NFL is that the NFL is fearful of their white fans. The NBA has it figured out, as even commissioner Adam Silver respects when players protest. It’s absolutely necessary to use their platforms to spread awareness for these topics. If not, then what’s the point? They’re not just there to play ball. Kids and adults look up to these people and even think of them as role models. Aren’t role models supposed to help guide us in a sense?

The NFL front office is panicking because what if a whole team decides to kneel? Will all players be suspended? Will a game have to be postponed? It’s quite ridiculous because no one is protesting the anthem.

I believe it could be fixed if, for one second, the league were to put themselves in the players’ shoes and truly understand their stance. I don’t think they get it. Many players come from rural backgrounds and didn’t have much growing up, as they faced many adversities. The NFL is mainly concerned with making money, and they don’t even care about their players’ health, hence the lack of guaranteed contracts. I feel like the NFL wants to satisfy their sponsors before they actually take care of their players first.

Brian Fleurantin, Writer at NetsDaily

I’d say the biggest thing holding the NFL players back is their lack of power. Just think about how Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have been treated over the past two years. They were (and are) solid players who are well-respected by their peers and can contribute to winning teams. However, they’ll never play in the NFL again, and there’s almost nothing the players/NFLPA can do about it.

Now imagine if you’re a potential free agent and you see two guys get blackballed — would you even dare think about protesting or challenging racism in a way that makes people mad and uncomfortable? Just the thought of having everything taken away from you because you speak up for marginalized communities is enough to silence you.

In keeping with labor not having any power, look at how ownership responds whenever their players are under attack. Every time there’s an attack on the players from the White House, teams and league management generally deliver weak statements talking about “respecting differences” and how we all need to come together. Compare that response to when Laura Ingraham told LeBron James and Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble” during All-Star Weekend. From the league office to the players to the announcers on TNT, everybody came out in full force to defend their guys and let it be known that you wouldn’t be able to say something like that without a fight. Having that support is incredibly empowering, and when you know the people around you will have your back when things get tough, you feel more sure of yourself when discussing difficult topics. For the NFL players, having little power and almost no support from management makes it harder.

As far as fixing things, there might be two ways to do it. The NFL is so petrified of offending certain parts of the fan base that they’ll never go out on a limb in ways they probably should. Even though I have some questions about how woke the NBA is, we at least know where they stand on certain matters related to race and justice. If Roger Goodell would take an approach similar to what Adam Silver does, he would help the NFL a great deal. Being genuine about these issues would go a great way in bridging the gap between the NFL and players on advocacy and activism.

And, to bring it home with my mention of player power earlier, if they had more security in their positions, it would allow them to be more vocal and engaging when they want to use their platforms for activism. Having guaranteed contracts would be perfect for this, but that’ll never happen. I can’t think of an alternative at the moment, but whatever gets them more protection would be essential.



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