Two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora “would understand” if NFL players choose to boycott games this season but says “something incredible must come from it”.
NBA players boycotted games two weeks ago – followed by other US sport leagues – after Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Wisconsin.
Several NFL teams cancelled practice and, as the NFL season gets under way this week, Black Lives Matter protests are expected to take place at matches.
But BBC NFL pundit Umenyiora only wants to see a unified statement from players if it is focused on a specific issue relating to racial injustice and police brutality, such as poverty.
“I feel we’re still not in agreement on what the real problem is,” he told BBC Sport. “People are saying it’s so many different things and pulling in different directions.
“Somebody needs to galvanise everybody and focus squarely on what the real problem is. For me, poverty is the root cause of all of the issues we’re having right now and nobody’s really addressing that.
“Economists and people who have been fighting for civil rights for a long time know what the real issue is but they’re being drowned out by people with the loudest microphones, who aren’t really pointing the finger at what the real cause is.”
Players ‘want to do something that makes a boom’
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the US national anthem in 2016 and the NFL banned players from protesting in May 2018, only to put the policy on hold two months later.
In 2017, US president Donald Trump said team owners should fire players who took a knee, and just last week reiterated that they should stand for the anthem.
But after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died while being restrained by a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May, several of the NFL’s top black players joined forces to produce a video statement, calling on the league to condemn racism and “admit wrong in silencing our players”.
The following day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did just that. He said the league wanted to “encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”, so the following gestures will be made this weekend:
- End zones will bear the words “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us”.
- Players will be allowed to wear helmet stickers featuring the names of victims of police brutality.
- The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, considered the black national anthem in the US, will be played before every game.
Umenyiora feels NFL teams and their owners have shown “100%” support to their players, with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones having softened his stance after initially being against players taking a knee.
In 2017 he said the organisation would not tolerate it but compromised by kneeling with his players before the anthem. Now defensive end Tyrone Crawford has said Dallas players “definitely have a green light” to express themselves and “want to do something that makes a boom”.
This week the Minnesota Vikings, the closest NFL team to Minneapolis, named the first recipient of the George Floyd Legacy Scholarship having previously announced a $5m donation to social justice causes throughout the US.
Since May, the NFL has also announced the following initiatives:
- A 10-year, $250m fund to support programs which address criminal justice reform and police reform, plus economic and educational advancement.
- A non-partisan initiative called NFL Votes to encourage voting and civic engagement up to the US presidential election on 3 November, when all NFL, NFLPA and club facilities will be closed.
- Clubs to hold meetings with state and local elected officials and leaders of law enforcement to discuss reducing conflict and improving community relations.
Umenyiora sees those moves as “a step in the right direction, but you have to do more”. Instead of protests at this week’s games, he would prefer to see statements like that made by Los Angeles cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who pledged to donate $1m to a school in his hometown of Nashville.
“That’s long-term thinking,” said the former New York Giants defensive end. “I understand the difficulty in addressing poverty because it’s all-encompassing. It’s going to take a much longer period of time.
“But if we’re just putting money into police reform or voting I don’t think it’s going to work out well in the long run. Unless we address what’s causing criminality and the influx of police in certain areas, it’s going to keep happening.
“When you see something like that [Jacob Blake] it’s visceral, you react emotionally, but they [NBA players] were playing again a few days later. Did anything change? What really happened?
“If you’re going to do that as an NFL team, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing it for, make sure you address a specific thing.”
Protests would be a ‘disaster’ for the NFL
Rocky Boiman, who won the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, said protests would be a “disaster” for the sport and would harm TV ratings, adding that the NFL should not allow its matches to turn into “a lot of messaging by players about social justice issues”.
“NBA ratings are down by 40% in a world where people are looking for an escape from Covid and getting back to sports,” the former linebacker told the BBC World Service Sportsworld programme.
“Most of America will tune in and think ‘I get these messages all the time, I don’t want them during the NFL. I have three hours I want to watch these two teams play’.”
Boiman added: “Baltimore Ravens put out some definitive things they wanted to see done – not just we need to do better, we need to have a conversation. We hear those words all the time and I think America is kind of over it. If there are actually some things that can be followed and changed then people might get behind it.
“I also don’t think it should happen during the game, there are plenty of other opportunities on social media and otherwise to have these things happen. If the fans received it well it would be wonderful, but history has shown that it doesn’t go down well.”
The NFL Show returns on Saturday, 12 September, on BBC Red Button (21:00 BST), plus BBC One and BBC iPlayer (23:20).