I love Mary J. Blige. Perhaps obsessively so. Her music has given voice to the joy, pain, sacrifice, and perseverance that is the core of the Black American woman’s experience in a way no one else has since Aretha Franklin demanded respect. If you look at my life, you’ll see what Mary J. sings about.
But I did not watch Blige’s much-praised Super Bowl halftime performance. I didn’t watch any part of the Super Bowl. I didn’t care about that game because the NFL has consistently made clear that it doesn’t care about justice, equality, or former fans like me who just can’t stomach rooting for an organization that refuses to adequately confront its own racism.
A star-studded halftime show full of ’90s jams doesn’t change that. I didn’t need Eminem’s knee. I need the NFL to actually show it’s serious about change. But it seems the league was more interested in deflecting drama, hateration, and holleration (sorry, Mary) with a nearly all-Black musical spectacular.
Much like the league’s much-hyped $250 million commitment to address systemic racism — which provides for on-field signage, helmet logos, and the like — the halftime show felt like window dressing. And it was particularly off-key on the heels of former head coach Brian Flores’s explosive lawsuit, which alleges racist hiring and management practices that he compares to that of “a plantation.” Other coaches and staffers of color have cosigned Flores’s assessment, but not on the record, citing fear of reprisals. The threat of such backlash is precisely how racism remains entrenched.
To be clear: I have no qualms with Blige, Dre, Snoop, or any other performer who graced that stage. My beef is with the NFL, which continues to profit off the labor of mostly Black bodies while systemically denying them the opportunity to lead.
I’m used to sports letting me down. My Detroit Lions jersey has been buried deep in a drawer since the NFL ousted Colin Kaepernick. The Major League Baseball lockout is causing me no springtime angst, because I left Red Sox Nation years ago over its delayed and inadequate response to the national racial reckoning. I did not rise early to watch Olympic women’s figure skating this week as planned because, much like American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who had to sit out the Tokyo games for testing positive for marijuana, I have questions about why Russian skater and doping test failer Kamila Valieva was still on the ice in Beijing.
I miss sports, and I wish organizations would take real, concrete, and meaningful steps to combat racism in their own systems — not just to win back former fans like me, but because it’s the right thing to do.
For the NFL, that starts with Black ownership. Leadership starts at the top — owners not only set the rules of the league but also the tone and culture.
“This is going to be the real change that will produce more Black coaches being hired and given more of a chance to succeed,” David Grenardo, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law and a former four-year letterman for the Rice University football team, said in an interview. Grenardo’s research on racism in sports and its solutions was published last year in the Harvard Law School Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.
Black ownership is a tall order in more ways than one, including the fact that only a handful of Black Americans are in the financial position to be buyers. Even media mogul Byron Allen, who wants to buy the Denver Broncos and become the NFL’s first Black owner, may not be able to swing it with his estimated $400 million net worth. That shows the need to change NFL rules, like the one that requires principal owners have at least a 30 percent stake in their teams. You need to be a billionaire to do that, and only seven Black Americans are.
From there, the NFL has to ensure that Black coaching candidates — and there are plenty of qualified ones — aren’t just interviewed and hired, but also get a chance to succeed.
Bill Belichick is where he is today because back in 2000 he kept his job after the Patriots’ dismal 5-11 season. In 2018, five Black NFL head coaches who were fired and replaced by white ones didn’t get that chance. Flores’s dismissal by the Dolphins and Houston’s firing of David Culley left just one Black head coach at the beginning of the hiring cycle in a league where 70 percent of the players are Black. If only some of those coaches received the grace Belichick did.
We’ve seen what Black Lives Matter signs, helmet stickers, and dazzling musical performances have done to break the old white boys’ clubs at the top of professional sports: nothing. The NFL and other leagues need to take real ownership of this issue, and not just sing the same old tune, catchy as it may be.