Fame, Fortune and Fear: What It Means to Be Black in the NFL

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2016

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 18:  Kenny Stills #10 of the Miami Dolphins (C) kneels during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

About five months ago, one of the NFL's better defensive players stopped his car on a side street in the suburbs of Dallas. He'd been visiting friends. A police car had pulled him over even though, the player said, he was traveling five miles under the speed limit.

The officer, who was white, asked for the player's license and registration. When the player, who is African-American, asked why he'd been stopped, he says the officer told him: "Just routine stuff, no big deal."

The player says the officer looked at his license and seemed to suddenly recognize him. The traffic stop ended. "Sorry, good luck to you," the officer said. He then got in his car and drove off.

The player felt conflicted. "How many black drivers were stopped and harassed by that officer for no reason?" the player remembers. "I was able to escape it because he knew I had the money and power to fight him."

Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem didn't just expose the differences between how some African-Americans and others view freedom of expression. It was also a window, in many ways, into what it means to be a black NFL player.

Players say that while the money and power of football give them opportunities and wealth few Americans possess, there are daily reminders that they are African-Americans in a country still dealing with its sometimes ugly and complicated past and present.

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NFL players live a life they appreciate and love. They wake up, go to work and then go home, like tens of millions of other Americans.

They stop to get coffee, order takeout and go to dinner with their wives and children. They see movies, go to clubs and pay their cable bills.

Yet black players also describe random traffic stops by police, being denied service at restaurants or being routinely subjected to racial slurs from fans at road games.

This is why so many African-American players have backed Kaepernick and his protest. They say what they face outside of football is bigger than football. Dozens of NFL players have come to kneel during the anthem. Or raise fists as the anthem plays.

"Football doesn't insulate us from bigotry," said one black player.

In interviews with 14 players (10 of whom are black), B/R was able to piece together the complex puzzle of what life is like in the NFL for black players. One spoke of receiving racist hate mail weekly. Another said he received a letter recently that had over two dozen mentions of the word "nigger."

Yet another recalled a time recently when he and a small group of African-American teammates went to a new restaurant in town, an NFL city, and were told there was no seating, despite the restaurant being half full. When the players asked for a manager, they said the manager threatened to call the police.

Often driving luxury cars, many of the players interviewed said they are stopped routinely by police. They are followed or watched in stores, they said.

One player told of pulling up to a gas pump at a station just outside of his NFL city. The attendant rushed out of the store, not to operate the pump, but to insist the player pay up front with cash.

Inside the locker room, an interesting phenomenon is developing within some organizations. Kaepernick's protests have united many players and members of the coaching staff. Coaches, players said, have largely supported any player who wanted to publicly express support for Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick's symbolic protest has drawn criticism in many quarters but has gained a quietly growing level of support among NFL players.
Colin Kaepernick's symbolic protest has drawn criticism in many quarters but has gained a quietly growing level of support among NFL players.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

However, players also said there's been a strain between the locker room and teams' front offices, some of which, these players explained, have distanced themselves from the players who support Kaepernick.

"Some front offices have actively discouraged their players from supporting Kaepernick," one player explained.

Many of the players interviewed asked not to be identified due to fear of repercussions from team officials or fans.

Players interviewed saved their harshest words for commissioner Roger Goodell. The overriding criticism is that Goodell has shown a lack of understandingand carefor why Kaepernick and others are protesting.

After initially remaining mostly silent as the Kaepernick story became a national one, Goodell has since been more vocal.

"We encourage our players to be active in their communities and to speak out when they see things that should be changed," Goodell said opening weekend, when he attended the game between Washington and Pittsburgh. "And they're reactive in doing that. They have that voice....

"Yes, we want them to respect the flag. We want them to respect the military personnel. And I think that they do. But they're all working to try to see how they can have a positive impact in their communities."

What players say is similar to what NFL players have said for decades. Players understand the life of prosperity the NFL provides, but they also know they are still subject to the same indignities that non-NFL African-American men and women face on a daily basis.

"Outside of our teams and our uniforms," said one African-American player, "we are still just black men in America, with everything that comes with that."


Black players have faced this dual world for a long time. James Harris, the first black quarterback to start a season in the NFL in 1969, received death threats as a player, he once explained to me. Before one game, he needed a police escort to the stadium due to the numerous threats.

Decades later, another black quarterback, Kaepernick, told the media this week he has received death threats over his protest.

"I've had a few come my way, but not too concerned about it," Kaepernick said. He said those threats haven't come just from social media but a "couple different avenues." Kaepernick added that before the Niners' Week 2 game at Carolina, and again at halftime, he received verbal taunts from fans.

Players tell B/R they have watched Kaepernick and it has reminded them that being black in the NFL comes with the same duality that it does for other African-Americans. Their wealth doesn't protect them, they say. Their star power doesn't prevent illegal traffic stops or end the use of racial slurs. Or taunts on a field or even death threats.

Brandon Marshall was among the first players to follow Colin Kaepernick and kneel for the national anthem this season in an attempt to protest the treatment of African-Americans by police.
Brandon Marshall was among the first players to follow Colin Kaepernick and kneel for the national anthem this season in an attempt to protest the treatment of African-Americans by police.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Denver's Brandon Marshall, who joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem, told the Denver Post of how this past summer he was in Miami at a restaurant when there was a shooting nearby. He ended up in the back of a police car, despite doing nothing wrong:

I was in Miami with three others at a restaurant and there was a shooting. Everybody ducked under the table out of fear, and a cop came in and told us it was fine, that it was just fireworks. We knew that wasn't the truth.

We began to leave the only way we knew, but there was a lady in regular street clothes directing traffic, telling us, "Go this way, go this way!" At a serious, scary moment a lady I didn't know was telling me which way to go, and I didn't trust it.

We went our own way, and she yelled to the cops, "Stop him! Get him!" When I turned around, about five officers rushed toward me to take me down. They tried to take me down up top, then they tried to grab my legs. One of the cops pointed a Taser at my chest. They handcuffed me and I heard one say, "Take him in for resisting."

I was in the back of the police car headed to the station when one of the officers radios in and said, "Bring him back." They told me, "Look, we're not going to take you in as long as you keep this between us."

Players who spoke to B/R said this type of incident, and far worse ones that involve police shootings and African-American men, are transforming what it means to be black in the NFL.

In the past, one player said, being a black NFL player meant being a good example to the public and staying out of trouble.

"Now," said one Pro Bowl player, "it means we need to use our power to change society."

These players said that means dedicating more time to speaking on social issues, and not fearing the repercussions.

"We can't just watch the world go by," another player explained. He added, like other players interviewed, that speaking out was a critical part now of being an African-American NFL player.

The landscape is already changing.

In the wake of the Terence Crutcher shooting (in which a video showed an unarmed black man with his arms in the air being shot by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma), Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster tweeted, "Terrance Crutcher was labeled as a 'big bad dude' well I probably stand no chance with the wrong person pulling me over."

Despite standing 6'6" and weighing 325 pounds, Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster says he fears for his life if he finds himself stopped by the police in his car.
Despite standing 6'6" and weighing 325 pounds, Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster says he fears for his life if he finds himself stopped by the police in his car.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Foster later said in an interview with Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan:

I've thought about this situation before. Here I am as, let's be honest, a big black guy. I have a big black truck- you guys have seen it, it has tinted windows. And, I have a threatening dog. It's just what they call a threatening dog, Zeus, a Rottweiler....

I think after the season, when I'm driving through Ohio, or Kentucky, or wherever I'm going, Pennsylvania.... If I get pulled over by the wrong person, and I have to let down my windows, and you see a big, black Rottweiler in a truck with a big, black male in a big black truck, and I tell you I have weapons in my vehicle but I also have the right to carry- if it's just not my day, that can be a bad day for me.

It's a harsh reality that I've thought about. ... It just has to have more consequences to those types of situations. It's unfair. ... I have two kids and a wife. I have family and friends that I'm here for also. It's sad that I've had to run that scenario through my head. I'm talking about numerous times since all the stuff has been going on.

Several of the players B/R spoke to said they want to form a players' social justice committee, which would be comprised of current and former players. The group would recommend the best ways to focus players' attention and money on societal issues affecting African-Americans, particularly when it comes to issues of policing and poverty.

Until that happens, though, the players interviewed said they believe that in the post-Kaepernick protest era they need to become more vocal on social issues pertaining to the African-American community.

"They say it's not the time to do this," Dolphins running back Arian Foster told reporters after he kneeled Week 1. "When is the time? It's never the time in somebody else's eye, because they'll always feel like it's good enough. And some people don't. That's the beautiful thing about this country. If somebody feels it's not good enough, they have that right. That's all we're doing, exercising that right."

There have long been NFL players who were visibly and socially active, following in the footsteps of Jim Brown, among others. After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and again after the riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, tight end Ben Watson posted emotional Facebook posts. Indeed, plenty of African-American players have donated time and money to numerous causes.

But not all African-American players believe Kaepernick's methodology is the right one. There are some black players, according to those interviewed, who have watched the vitriol and racial slurs tossed at Kaepernick on social media and elsewhere and are terrified to publicly support Kaepernick.

Only this week Congressman Steve King of Iowa said Kaepernick's actions made him a sympathizer to one of the world's most vicious terror organizations.

One player interviewed said several black teammates recently became first-time gun owners, buying weapons to protect themselves and their families from potential violence from fans or others due to Kaepernick's stand.

In recent years, say some of the players interviewed, many black players have withdrawn from the socially active public eye and refused to take difficult (and potentially unpopular) stands on policing and poverty in the black community. The risks to their jobs are just too great. Salaries are higher than ever, and an increased feeling that players are replaceable had until recently led to a mass silencing of black players on social issues.

The players interviewed expressed a sense of embarrassment as they watched NBA and WNBA players take highly visible stances following several police shootings. Even Michael Jordan, once criticized for not speaking about social issues, took an extraordinary public stance, writing in The Undefeated that he was "deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers."

Many around the NFL have felt embarrassed about their inability to organize the type of protests seen in places like the WNBA, where the Indiana Fever kneeled as a team during the national anthem before a playoff game this week.
Many around the NFL have felt embarrassed about their inability to organize the type of protests seen in places like the WNBA, where the Indiana Fever kneeled as a team during the national anthem before a playoff game this week.Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Some police officials have spoken about how athletes and entertainers needed to get more involved. After the horrific police shootings in Dallas this past summer, David Brown, the city's police chief, met with the Cowboys and said players should say more about race relations.

Interestingly, the white players interviewed said they support Kaepernick's kneeling (and added they have spoken to or texted Kaepernick in support) but won't publicly do so, as one said, "Because it's not my issue."

One thing that's clear is that in locker rooms, according to players—with perhaps a few exceptionsthere has been an awakening.

"Colin has made me remember what my duties are as a black player," said an NFC East player.

What does it mean to be a black player in the NFL now? It means something different than it did before Kaepernick's brave act, players say.

The player who says he was unjustly stopped, and then released after the officer recognized him, said an interesting thing happened when Kaepernick initially did his peaceful protest. At first, the player didn't consider kneeling, fearing losing marketing opportunities.

Now, the player feels differently. "I'm increasingly feeling like I can't stay quiet," he said. "I think by staying quiet, I'm betraying myself, and my race."

So the player said he is strongly considering joining Kaepernick. He likely won't be alone.