Opinion: Want an NFL season? Then NFL owners need to start speaking up and using influence

NFL players have had their say, forcing practices across the league to be canceled as they work through their anger and sorrow at a society that continues to kill Black men and women. Coaches have been eloquent and thoughtful, both in supporting their players and issuing their own calls for action.

The voice missing in all of this? That of the NFL’s owners.

Not a surprise, really. This is a group that, with very few exceptions, has met previous protests for social justice with indifference or outright hostility. A group that is mostly male and almost exclusively white, insulating them from discrimination and prejudice. A group that includes donors and friends of President Donald Trump, who has yet to pass on an opportunity to spew hate and bigotry.

And yet, if these owners want an NFL season to happen without interruption, they’re going to have to speak up — publicly, and to the national, state and local leaders with the power to make the changes needed to root out systemic racism.

“Players are realizing how much power owners actually have. If you have the power to get a billion-dollar stadium built, you have the power to deal with the sheriff or the mayor or whoever controls the budget,” said Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University and author of "We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality."

“If you want to be an owner in a black league, you’re going to have to start doing these things,” Moore added. “Because I don’t see any of this going away.”

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper (left) and Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill at State Farm Stadium. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

More than two-thirds of players in the NFL are Black, and every one of them has a story of being marginalized or subjected to hate. They might be cheered and revered when they’re in uniform, but out of it, they’re still Black men, liable to be harassed by police, viewed with suspicion when they enter a store or questioned when they return to their own neighborhoods.

Exhausting and demeaning in the best of circumstances, the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer and the shooting of Jacob Blake has left players hurt, angry and wanting concrete action.

Yet even with their money and fame, there are limits to what they can do. The changes they demand require action at levels few of them can reach.

But team owners can.

When Jonathan Kraft, son of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, accompanied players to a meeting with criminal justice advocates, he was incensed to learn that children as young as 7 – most of whom were Black boys – could be arrested. So he began making phone calls to people he knew. People who are in the highest level of government, who can undo biased policies with a signature.

Five months after that meeting, Massachusetts passed a sweeping juvenile justice reform package. One of its provisions? Children under the age of 12 can no longer be arrested.

“Owners carry a lot of weight in terms of putting a new paradigm in the minds of those that you might say are elitist in society,” John Carlos, whose protest with Tommie Smith on the medals stand at the 1968 Olympics, has become one of sports’ most iconic moments, told USA TODAY Sports' Tom Schad.  

“What happens if (police) were to gun down a major NFL player? You think they would be silent then?” Carlos added. “And that’s extremely possible. So they have to do what they can do to stop the racist killings that are taking place throughout our society.”

It’s not as if owners aren’t willing to throw their weight around when it suits them. Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill had no problem using his team to promote Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Six current NFL owners donated $1 million each to Trump’s inaugural committee, and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross threw a big-ticket fundraiser for Trump’s re-election campaign last summer.

How many of them have wrangled taxpayer money out of state and local officials for a shiny new stadium? How many of them negotiate with local municipalities for security, traffic management and other game-day needs?

They have the means to bring about change. If they want to.

And they should want to, unless they want to watch their own players bring the NFL season to a screeching halt as NBA, WNBA and some Major League Baseball and MLS players have done.

“It would be naïve to think this is going to die down,” Moore said. “Players want their opportunities to stand up and do something. Football players, because of the unique situation of COVID, haven’t had their chance. All they’ve been able to do is cancel practice.

“People (in other leagues) have already boycotted,” Moore added. “What’s next for you in this 70 percent black league?”

There is a price to pay for silence. For NFL owners, it could be part of their season. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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