5 Racial Justice Issues You Can’t Ignore This NFL Season

By Jamilah King Sep 04, 2014

Here’s where we left things off last season in the NFL: Richard Sherman, in a moment of unhinged, post-game adrenaline, turned to national news cameras during a post-game interview and yelled about his hatred of San Francisco 49er Michael Crabtree. Reaction to Sherman’s interview was swift: He was compared to a monkey, called a monster, a thug and worse. He was headed to football’s biggest stage, and that platform did nothing but amplify all of America’s deeply held racist caricatures.

The new season, which kicks off on Thursday when the Green Bay Packers take on Sherman’s Seahawks, is already aflame in its own race-based controversies. Here’s what to watch for this season.

Really racist team names: Mark your calendar for November 2, 2014. That’s when the Washington, D.C. NFL team will take on the Minnesota Vikings at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. They’re playing there while their new multimillion dollar stadium is under construction. If the Minneapolis-based National Coalition on Racism and Sports in Media and university activists get their way, the "Redskins" name will be blocked from the stadium. The coalition has threatened to sue and, at the very least, protesters will be present at the game. 

On-field protests: Speaking of D.C.’s team, its players made quite a statement in the aftermath of this summer’s Ferguson protests. Before a pre-season game against the Cleveland Browns, several players walked out onto the field with their hands up, the symbolic gesture that’s become one of the lasting images of the uprisings. 

Those alleged gang ties: Despite having one of the more productive careers as a wide receiver in the league, DeSean Jackson was cut from the Philadelphia Eagles during the off-season. The reason? Gang affiliations, according to his former club. Jackson, who was raised in the same South Central Los Angeles community that produced Seattle Seahawks corner Richard Sherman, has strongly denied being a member of any gang, but that’s almost beside the point. The power imbalance between the league’s (mostly) black players and its (mostly) white coaches and owners was on display when, as Jackson put it, his reputation was slandered during a bitter contract dispute. The accusations proved just how unfair it is to paint black players with such a broad brush. Meanwhile, Jackson’s former teammate, Riley Cooper — who was caught on camera screaming a racial slur — will suit up for Philly this season.

Aaron Hernandez’s trial: Get ready. Once this NFL season is over, one of the game’s biggest murder trials will begin on May 28. Hernandez was once one of the most promising and high-profile Latino professional athletes in the country, but he’s now sitting in a Boston-area jail awaiting two trials for three different counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Odin Lloyd, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. It’s an unbelievably sad story, one that’s been made even worse by all of the highly racialized commentary that’s been floating around since his arrest last summer. From his tattoos to his single-parent upbringing in working-class Bristol, Connecticut, every detail of Hernandez’s life leading up to the alleged crimes is being scrutinized.

Domestic violence:The league let down at least half of its fans, who are women, when it handed down a paltry three-game suspension to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was caught on tape brutally assaulting his then-fiance. "It’s a joke, and a bad one,"wroteespnW’s Jane McManus. "Worse, it leaves the door open for people to think that Janay Rice bears a lot of the responsibility for eliciting the punch that seemingly knocked her out."In fact, that sentiment was backed up by ESPN’s Steven Smith, whose tone-deaf rant about women needing to learn not to "provoke" their attackers earned him a week-long suspension from the network. Recently, 49ers player Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic violence charges. Let’s hope the league learns its lesson this time around.