The complex relationship between racial justice and football


Noah Shubert, News Co-Editor

June 19, 2018. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A silver Chevrolet Cruze has been pulled over by police based on the occupants’ suspected role in a drive-by shooting. The police have ordered the driver to exit the vehicle, and are in the process of handcuffing him.


Suddenly, the two other occupants of the vehicle, Zaijuan Hester and 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr., exit the car and attempt to flee the scene. Newly sworn in police officer Michael Rosfeld fires three rounds at the two, with all three striking Rose. Hours later, he was pronounced dead at McKeesport Hospital. Officer Rosfeld was placed on administrative leave, and subsequently arrested and charged with criminal homicide. After a 3-day trial, the verdict came: not guilty. Michael Rosfeld was a free man.


An AP student with no criminal record who frequently volunteered in the community, Antwon Rose Jr. had just become yet another name on the list of those affected by police brutality.


Flash forward to September 15, 2020. MetLife Stadium. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants are preparing to square off in their Week 1 Monday Night Football matchup. Every Steelers player is adorned with Rose’s name on the back of their helmets, except for one: starting offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Alejandro Villeneuva.   


A 6-year pro and 2-time Pro Bowler, Villenueva also is a 10 year United States Army Ranger veteran, who has served on two tours in Afghanistan and received the Bronze Star Medal.

Villenueva instead covered Rose’s name with athletic tape and inscribed “Alwyn Cashe,” a US veteran who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for heroism after his death at 35 in Iraq. 

Teammates were taken aback by the decision, with quarterback Ben Rooethlisberger saying he “did not know about [Villenueva’s] choice” and defensive end Cam Heyward adding that he was “unaware of it.” 


But why was Villenueva’s choice significant? Why was Rose’s name even an option for the helmets in the first place? What caused the NFL to all of a sudden allow teams to print names on the back of their helmets? 


The battle against police brutality has been an ongoing effort for decades, sparking countless protests involving millions of people of all races, color, and religions crying out against the system of oppression. 


Those protests reached a new level this summer, however, following the killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Riots broke out across the country with people chanting for arrests to be made and justice to be served. Businesses were burnt down and looted. Protesters were injured, and in some cases killed, in the effort by police (and sometimes private citizens) to control the masses. Rubber bullets, flash bang grenades and tear gas filled countless streets, as the chants of “I can’t breathe” were echoed across buildings and through alleyways.


The Black Lives Matter movement had swept the nation, with those exact words being painted in massive yellow letters on 16th Street in Washington, DC and Fifth Avenue in New York City. The people’s message could not have been clearer: they wanted change and they wanted it now.


Following in the footsteps of the NBA, the NFL announced in a memo to teams that it was making several strides in the direction of racial justice awareness, starting with “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” being painted in end zones. Approved messages and imagery were to be included on equipment, clothing, and uniforms of coaches, players, staff, and officials, as well as teams being allowed print a name of a police brutality victim on the back of players’ helmets. 


This move came after 18 notable players including Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, Saquon Barkley, and Odell Beckham Jr. released a video together urging the NFL to add their voice into the pool of those against racism. The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell released a video of their own the following day, supporting the players’ right to protest and announcing that “we the NFL condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” and acknowledged their previous faults in regards to player protests and social justice initiatives. While the message was well-received, there still remained some who were critical of how long it took the NFL to speak out for their players, and the amount of coaxing it required. 


Leading up to the kickoff of the 2020 season between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, there was mass uncertainty about what would happen. It did not take long for every question to be answered. While the National Anthem was played on the speakers, the majority of Chiefs players stood on the sideline with interlocking arms; some stood with their hands over hearts; defensive end Alex Okafor knelt with his right fist raised in the air. The Houston Texans sent their message in a different way, electing to not take the field during the anthem whatsoever, instead remaining inside the locker room for the duration of the song. Following the National Anthem, players and coaches stood across the field with arms interlocked, as the PA announcer informed fans in attendance and at-home audiences that a moment of silence was being held for the battle against social justice issues. Members of the crowd booed. Twitter exploded with arguments over right and wrong. It was abundantly clear that the NFL had taken a side, and thousands voiced their disapproval over the choice. This is not the first time that the NFL has had to deal with players protesting racial justice; this is the first time they had a plan.


On September 1, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked major controversy when he elected to take a knee during the National Anthem before the teams’ final preseason game, joined by safety Eric Reid. 


These actions led to the belief that after his contract opt-out at the end of the season, Kapernick, who had led the 49ers to Super Bowl 47 four years prior, was placed on a rhetorical blacklist by the league after he went unsigned (and continues to be unsigned to this day). Kaepernick filed a grievance for collusion against NFL owners in October 2017, which was settled 16 months later.


President Donald Trump stated in a September 2017 rally that any NFL player who knelt during the anthem should be fired by the team owner, and encouraged owners to “get [them] off the field right now.” Players expressed their outrage over The President’s comments through their actions, with over 200 players sitting or taking a knee during the anthem the following week. 


In late May 2018, Roger Goodell and the NFL owners voted 30-2 (abstinations) mandating that all players must either stand or remain in the locker room during the anthem. This ruling came without consulting the NFLPA (NFL Players’ Association); in protest, several members of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles publicly stated that they would decline an invitation from Donald Trump to visit the White House, prompting The President to rescind the offer.


Two months later, a joint statement was released by the NFL and Players Association that the rules against protest would not be put into effect for several weeks following reports of the Miami Dolphins threatening a 4-game suspension for a rules violation (for comparison, up until 2014, the domestic violence punishment was 2 games). 


Trump made headlines the following day with a Tweet proposing his own rules system in which players should be suspended 1 game for kneeling, and the rest of the season without pay for the second offense.


As witnessed in Week 1 of this season, the NFL players seem unfazed by past mandates and criticism from the highest of levels. Players from all races and backgrounds have discovered common ground on the football field, and have come together in the struggle for social justice. They see the bigger picture, realize it’s about more than football, and are using their elevated platform to fight for what they believe in and create real change in our world today.