The sports league that once outlawed kneeling during the national anthem is now attempting to pick up more of the social justice mantle. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy tells the New York Times that players will be able to choose from six helmet decals this season bearing one of the following messages: "Black Lives Matter," "Stop Hate," "Say Their Stories," "Inspire Change," "End Racism," and "It Takes All of Us." The latter two slogans will also be stenciled across all end zones during most home games, as they were last year (one may temporarily be replaced to promote other causes during certain games). Meanwhile, later in the season, which kicks off Thursday, teams will report on their social justice projects and how they're doing, per the AP.
The NFL will also continue its "Say Their Stories" initiative—which involves players voicing the narratives of those who've been victims of police brutality, as well as those of social justice heroes—while "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the Black national anthem, will be played before this season's opening game, as well as at the Pro Bowl, Super Bowl, and NFL draft. "We are committed to 'Inspire Change' and the social justice work that inspires change for the long term," Anna Isaacson, VP of social responsibility for the league, tells the AP, referencing the NFL's "Inspire Change" platform that vows to commit to "conversations and actions that move us towards a more equal and just tomorrow."
Per Axios, this ramped-up dedication to social justice is an important move for the NFL, as about 70% of the players on the NFL's active roster are Black, and because the league has faced backlash in the past for not sufficiently standing up for players who protested against racism and police brutality. That controversy especially swirled around the NFL's response to Colin Kaepernick, who became the center of intense controversy after he began to kneel during the national anthem in 2016. Kaepernick left the 49ers the following year and still hasn't been re-signed with any team.
Some detractors say that the league's hard push into social justice messaging could repel some fans who don't think it belongs at sports events. But NFL spokesman McCarthy tells the Times it's "an opportunity to highlight messages that are important to the league, players and personnel, and our communities." A rep for the NFL Players Association adds that "our membership continues to not only care about these issues, but have been putting in the time and effort to effectuate change." (Read more NFL stories.)