Last year, several days before Juneteenth, the NFL made a significant announcement. Commissioner Roger Goodell told all teams the league office would recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday, and NFL offices would be closed. This was an unprecedented move for the league.
In a memo to all teams that was destined to be leaked to the media, Goodell, in part, wrote: "This year, as we work together as a family and in our communities to combat the racial injustices that remain deeply rooted into the fabric of our society, the NFL will observe Juneteenth on Friday, June 19th as a recognized holiday and our league offices will be closed. It is a day to reflect on our past, but more importantly, consider how each one of us can continue to show up and band together to work toward a better future."
This was about three weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and the NFL was praised for being inclusive and thoughtful. Soon, individual teams followed the NFL's lead, and the NFL's voyage into performative wokeness was complete.
What most of the public didn't know, was as the NFL patted itself on the back for recognizing Juneteenth, it was also using one of the most racist practices in its history, and that's race-norming.
Juneteenth is the recognition of the end of slavery in America. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers landed in Texas, announced slavery was over, and that the Civil War had concluded.
Juneteenth has long been observed by Black people but knowledge of it has become more mainstream as the nation increasingly grapples with its racist past.
There's no proof that as a league the NFL did what Goodell said in his statement to teams which was "reflect on our past." Whether he meant the NFL should, or America, it doesn't seem like either thing occurred.
Thus as the country, and the NFL, celebrates Juneteenth on Saturday, rather than words or gestures, the NFL needs to spend this time taking a hard look at itself. It actually needs to do what Goodell said it should.
The league has to examine what its Black players really mean to the NFL, especially since they make up approximately 70% of the sport. Use this day to ask why it talks about how much it respects Black people, while sometimes their actions show otherwise.
Why was Colin Kaepernick effectively banned? Why is the league still so awful at hiring Black coaches? Those are just some of the questions.
The NFL publicly embracing Juneteenth while acting in the least Juneteenth-y way possible is on brand for the league. The league talks about its love of the military but it charged the Department of Defense for military tributes at its games. It pushed pink merchandise to fight breast cancer but a shockingly small amount of the proceeds actually went toward research.
The league utilizing race-norming as a money-saving weapon against its own players still requires answers from Goodell and the owners. It will take decades to fully unravel and repair the damage. Before the NFL recently eliminated the practice, race-norming assumed Black players started out with a lower level of cognitive function. This, in turn, made it more difficult for Black players to qualify for payouts after the NFL and players reached a nearly billion-dollar settlement following a class-action lawsuit players filed against the league.
If the league had remembered history, and respected it, the NFL could have avoided this mess. Remembering the past, and making sure it's taught accurately, is one of the biggest challenges in race relations today. The assault on The New York Times 1619 Project, and how some have blended it into critical race theory, mounting an organized assault on both, shows how the reciting of American history is under attack.
The NFL's actions in using race-norming shows the danger of ignoring history and shows why days like Juneteenth are so valuable and likely will be for centuries. The NFL ignored the lessons of the Tuskegee experiment, or lessons from within its own walls, when the NFL hid what it knew about the dangers of concussions.
It would be nice if the NFL owners had a meeting and emerged from it with a statement of apology and a promise to reimburse every player who was impacted by race-norming.
It would be excellent if Goodell said: "This happened on my watch and it won't happen again."
But neither of those things will happen.
Instead, the NFL will talk about how important Juneteenth is to the league, failing to see the race-norming irony.
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