If you believe that “the arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, you can imagine a time in the not too distant future when Colin Kaepernick will be lionized for sacrificing his career as an NFL quarterback to bring attention to police brutality and systemic racism in the United States.
In the moment, it’s difficult to cut through the vitriol being directed at Kaepernick and the other NFL kneelers. Nothing about what the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback has done in the last two years would suggest that he has been surprised by the reaction to his protest or that he gives a damn about his rock-bottom Q Score. It’s certainly possible that Kaepernick will remain as unpopular 10 or 20 years from now as he is today.
Yet, King himself, reviled as a dangerous agitator during the civil rights movement, has been Disneyfied in the American consciousness. Despite being deeply despised for refusing military service during the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali received a de facto state funeral when he died in 2016.
It’s easy to map out a similar trajectory for Kaepernick. But what about the NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell?
The decisions made regarding Kaepernick and the protests reflect how the NFL’s shot-callers have prioritized catering to the league’s core audience of white, middle-class Americans. (White, middle-class males, to put a finer point on it.) Public opinion polling has made it clear that the protests turned them off. Once President Donald Trump deemed the protests to be a political gift, he assured that kneeling during the national anthem would stay in the spotlight so long as he wanted it there.
Hence, the NFL’s split-the-baby decree aimed at getting the protests off our TVs on Sunday afternoons in the fall.
This entire process may have reached an end point that satisfies Trump (for the moment) and the league’s current core audience. The future, however, is an open question.
Little thought has been given to fans who might disavow the NFL for the treatment of Kaepernick or the attitudes betrayed by the owners' approach to crafting the new policy. Notably, the rollout of the new policy lacked the input of the NFL Players Association – a finger to the eye of the people who actually control whether or not the protests live on in one form or another. The owners’ optics-fueled decision was consistent with their transparent disregard throughout the entire episode for the opinions of a labor force that is roughly 70 percent black.
There's also the matter of capturing new fans.
Long-term projections leave little doubt about the future makeup of the U.S. population, which is becoming increasingly diverse. By 2030, the non-Hispanic white share of the country’s total population will fall to 55.8 percent. By 2060, that cohort will make up closer to 45 percent of the population, making it the only racial group projected to contract during that time period.
As the white middle class continues to shrink, the NFL will be competing for the attention of millennials and the increasingly diverse generations to follow. Younger and non-white Americans have a more positive view of Kaepernick and the social activism of athletes in general. Additionally, the growing Hispanic community will be looking at the NFL through the lens of kowtowing to a president who made demonizing immigrants a hallmark of his administration.
The fans of tomorrow will almost certainly take a dim view of the NFL’s response to Kaepernick and the players’ calls for social justice. The actions of the people in charge don't offer any reason to think they won't soon find new ways to further antagonize their audience of the future.