Coach and teacher Derek Atlas says he won’t be watching the NFL this season, the first time in years.
Despite having three former football players on the field each Sunday, Atlas is entrenched in his stance about police treatment of African-American men, which is why, he says, he’s standing behind former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose personal protest about that treatment by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at games has created a national uproar.
Atlas says his “blackout” of the NFL will involve spending more time on Sundays in his church and other mentoring activities.
“It’s obvious that Colin (Kaepernick) has been blackballed because he non-violently demonstrated his opposition to racially motivated police brutality often resulting in fatality,” Atlas said. “There are a host of NFL quarterbacks with worse performances last year. There are a host of NFL quarterbacks with no NFL playoff experience. (But) they all are welcome in the NFL.”
The treatment of Kaepernick, who became a free agent after the 2016 season and has been unemployed ever since, has created a dilemma nationwide for African-American men.
Many, like Atlas, say they won’t be watching the NFL because the quarterback’s protest has gotten him blackballed out of the league.
Others, who are against police brutality, say they will be watching the games and playing fantasy football as they always have.
Detroiter George Davis, 49, said he’ll be watching the games with his son, a prospective college football player.
“For his future, I’ve got to check it out and see what’s going on,” said Davis. “It’s one of those things that other parents who have sons that are potential college athletes have to be focused on. We want to see the best for Colin and his career, but there’re other kids and their career potentially.”
The Kaepernick dilemma has been the buzz of sports talk shows and radio programs for months.
The hosts, their callers, athletes and many others have weighed-in on multiple fronts. In an interview, Hall of Fame NFL running back and activist Jim Brown said: “I don’t desecrate my flag and national anthem.”
Many current NFL players have stepped up to support Kaepernick, including star Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who publicly called out league owners on their treatment of Kaepernick in a recent interview.
For Detroit radio contributor Eric Pate, a former sports writer, Kaepernick’s fight hits home on another front.
Pate said that while growing up in Detroit, he didn’t view the police as people who protect and serve, but rather to oppress black communities.
At 16, he was falsely accused of robbing a paperboy with two friends.
“(Growing up) wasn’t really pleasant,” said Pate, who lived on the city’s east side. “The police weren’t there to take the cat out of the tree. They were there to chase us through the neighborhood and accuse us of crimes.”
Pate, 53, a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, as is Kaepernick, said he has no problem with those still watching the NFL.
“They have a place and they should do what they want to do,” Pate said. “Now folks who bought season tickets should sit down during the national anthem. I did that last year.”
On Sunday, about 100 people demonstrated against the NFL’s treatment of Kaepernick when the Detroit Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi marched a mile from their Historic Kappa House in Detroit’s Brush Park to kneel and hold up raised fists outside Ford Field just before the Detroit Lions’ home opener.
Detroiter Shaun Thomas, 58, is taking another approach.
The Lions season ticket holder, who is also against police brutality, said he will still be attending games. But, instead of wearing his traditional Lions gear, he’ll be wearing all-black attire. And when the national anthem is played, he said he will not to be in his seat.
“The only reason why I’m going is because I’ve already paid for the ticket,” Thomas said. “(Kaepernick) is a quarterback that should be working. And kneeling down is an expression of his feelings. He’s got the right to do that.
“Fans have the right not to support the teams or the NFL, just like I support his protest.”
Thomas said the Lions games will be the only NFL contests he plans to watch or post on social media this season.
Kaepernick is not the first athlete to take a public stand against police brutality, the national anthem or any other social injustice. Most received backlash.
Before the Kaepernick protests, the Minnesota Lynx wore shirts in support of Philando Castile following his shooting by a white police officer in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Miami Heat donned hoodies after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, by a security volunteer in Sanford, Florida.
Other historic protests include:
■The refusal in 1967 by Muhammad Ali, a member of the Nation of Islam, to join the Army and serve in Vietnam, citing his religious beliefs.
■The black-gloved raised fists on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Olympics of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith as a protest of the injustice against blacks in the United States.
■The arrest in 1985 of tennis icon Arthur Ashe in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Activist groups nationwide have mobilized several recent protests that include a video created by several ministers in Alabama that has spread through social media, and a rally outside the NFL headquarters in New York.
In Chicago, two bars decided they will not show NFL games. Each cites the hypocrisy of the NFL giving second chances to players with other transgressions.
These protests, however, will likely have minimal impact. Published reports from 2016 show NFL viewers are about 83 percent white and 64 percent male.
That’s why Kenneth Reed, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said he’d like to see a more organized boycott against NFL sponsors.
“What I would like to see is for the people who are organizing this movement to be focused and highly organized,” Reed said.
Reed said he admires Kaepernick’s willingness to lay his career on the line by launching his protest.
It was the NFL’s reaction to Kaepernick’s stance that “polarized many other issues I had been avoiding with the league,” said Bill Billups, a youth football coach in Southfield.
One issue, he said, is how the league has handled the increasing number of diagnosed cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
“How long did the league really know about CTE? Did they keep it under wraps because of the money alone or because most of the players were African-American?” Billups asked, noting that nearly 80 percent of the players are African-American.
“I will not be watching the NFL. The whole thing reeks of modern day slavery,” Billups said.
But for many men, it’s not about choosing football over police brutality, Davis said.
“I do love the sport and I have enjoyment for it,” Davis said. “I’ve always had that passion (and) it's something I enjoy. (But) we don’t have to be either/or. (Kaepernick) deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. It’s just a matter of time before somebody reaches out and offers him a contract.”
Darren A. Nichols is a Detroit-based freelance writer.