Written by Jen Offord


Block tackle

The NFL backed its players over anti-racism protests this week. So why didn’t the women’s basketball league do the same back in July, asks Jen Offord.

Colin Kaepernick in 2010. Photo by Kyle Nishioka, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Colin Kaepernick in 2010. Photo by Kyle Nishioka, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

It’s not often that anyone in the UK talks about the NFL (National Football League). You know, the American football league, not to be confused with major league soccer, which is actually proper football, but played by Americans (and older English players who like money very much).

So you would be forgiven for wondering why suddenly everyone’s banging on about it, when it doesn’t even seem anyone’s punched their wife in a lift. Over the last couple of weeks, NFL players have been hitting the headlines for good and bad reasons, depending on your point of view/whether or not you are a fan of racial oppression. It all started with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick a couple of weeks ago refusing to stand for the national anthem. This was to the ire of many because they have quite a good national anthem in the United States and, golly gosh, do they like a sing of it.

Kaepernick, who faced a barrage of criticism from people who I would broadly describe as ‘stupid’, went on to explain his protest thus: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” adding that he would not do so until the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent.”

A footballer with a political axe to grind: somewhat unfamiliar to followers of our own Premier League.

To give you a flavour of the kind of reactions Kaepernick faced, I refer you to one Donald Trump, who suggested the 28-year-old should just go and live in another country. Obviously Barack Obama said something sensible about Kaepernick exercising a constitutional right and stimulating conversation “around some topics that need to be talked about”.

But things were going to get worse for stupid people after Kaepernick’s protest, which was initially regarded as a bit of attention-seeking by a dude who doesn’t often make the first team. More and more of his fellow NFL players joined him. But it was a protest too far for many (including Kate Upton, apparently. I didn’t actually know who Kate Upton was, but am reliably informed by a male colleague that she “has boobs”).

“Rules are not, after all, supposed to be broken. But then people are not supposed to die in police custody either, are they?”

As players took to pitches across the nation, kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem – feeling the acute awkwardness of it not all being about them – stupid people went into overdrive on social media. One particularly ranty guy labelled them “spoilt.” Yeah you pricks, what more do you want? Freedom to not be shot in the face for having a dodgy taillight? Some People…

Others who, in theory, didn’t mind it not all being about them, still thought it was a bit much to shun the flag on 9/11 of all days. After all, why would you want to flag up racial tensions on a day so symbolic of conflict and, indeed, racial tensions?

It would have been easy for the clubs of these protesting players to jump on the bandwagon and condemn their behaviour but to their credit, many of the clubs involved stood by their men. The Miami Dolphins said: “We also recognise that it’s an individual’s right to reflect during the anthem in different ways. We respect these liberties.”

Meanwhile Kaepernick’s 49ers issued a statement saying: “In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognise the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

Why then, I wonder, did the WNBA (that’s the women’s basketball top league, FYI) choose to not – at least initially – back their players for a far less confrontational protest back in July?

The less-well reported (understandably so, because the NFL draws a bigger audience than women’s basketball) prelude to the NFL protests is T-Shirt-Gate. This was when WNBA players wore warmup T-shirts bearing the BlackLivesMatter hashtag in response to the recent violent incidents. The league’s initial response was – naturally – to fine them for not wearing the proper warmup attire.

Megan Rapino photo by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Megan Rapino photo by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

OK, rules are rules. Back in 2002, Thierry Henry was famously fined for lifting his shirt to reveal a message in celebration of the birth of Sharleen Spiteri’s child (this is actually true, unbelievably. Henry and Spiteri are apparently – and perhaps a little incongruously – bezzies).

Perhaps the initial punishment would have been the same in any sport in any nation. Rules are not, after all, supposed to be broken. But then people are not supposed to die in police custody either, are they?

The punishment was rescinded after fierce criticism of the thinly veiled message, which is the same as the one that echoed across the Twittersphere in response to the NFL protests, and the same as that which echoed for centuries across the western world: You can perform for us, you can use your bodies and your talent to entertain us, but you must not have a voice with which to counter us.

When women’s major league soccer player Megan Rapinoe took to her knee last week, she spoke of similar disenfranchisement . “Being a gay American, I know what is means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” the Seattle Reign FC midfielder told American Soccer Now.

As the possibility that Donald Trump might become the most powerful man in the world come November feels increasingly less hilarious and as other stupid people spread intolerance across Europe, if ever there were a time to listen to someone else’s voice, surely that time is now.


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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen