BY Elliott Smith

Jan 30th 2023

Sustainable LivingArts and Culture

Five Times Football Helped Advance Social Change

Jan 30th 2023

One of the most famous—and controversial—acts of protest in professional sports went unnoticed for two weeks.

On August 14, 2016, during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on his team’s bench for the duration of the song. One week later, he did the same thing. No one noticed, perhaps because Kaepernick wasn’t scheduled to play in the 49ers’ first two preseason games, so he wasn’t in uniform.

But on August 26, a photo from writer Jennifer Lee Chan captured Kaepernick once again sitting—in full uniform—during the anthem before the team’s third preseason contest. The image went viral; the reaction was swift.

If you were even half paying attention in 2016, you know that Kaepernick’s protest against the oppression of Black people in America became the topic of the year. The impactful moment in American culture ultimately morphed into a disheartening story of Kaepernick’s career ending and police brutality continuing.

It wasn’t until the horrific murder of George Floyd in 2020 that nationwide protests ensued and Kaepernick’s message more widely resonated. That, it turns out, is a bit of a trend in professional football. While players and coaches have stood up for meaningful social change over the years, many of these actions went initially unnoticed (or unexamined) by fans or the slow-to-change, multi-billion-dollar industry.

The impactful moment in American culture ultimately morphed into a sad story of Kaepernick’s career ending as police brutality continued.

However, quiet progress often followed those major moments. The next generation of players followed Kaepernick’s lead as high school teams started kneeling. A year after Kaepernick took a knee, players Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin founded The Players Coalition, an organization created to address social justice and racial equality through advocacy and awareness. In college ball, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill tweeted in 2020 that he wouldn’t play unless the state changed its flag, which still relied on Confederate imagery. His voice helped a new flag be adopted in the state later that year.

With much work still to be done, the NFL can point to several recent shining moments—Mellody Hobson, Condoleezza Rice, and Lewis Hamilton becoming the league’s first Black co-owners; the league pledging to donate $250 million over 10 years to social justice causes; a record seven Black general managers at the start of the 2022 season—to show that, slow but steady, the league is adding important building blocks to achieve meaningful social change. Sadly, the cost of those changes has been high, especially for those spearheading progress. Like Kaepernick, many who took a stand lost their careers in the process, sacrifices that helped improve the lives of future players—and society.

Here are five more change-making moments in NFL history, led by folks whose names aren’t always remembered, but whose impact on social progress is undeniable.

5 Change-Making Moments in Football

The people: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode
The story: While Jackie Robinson receives the lion's share of credit for helping to integrate professional sports in 1947, his former UCLA teammates helped re-integrate the NFL one year earlier. Kenny Washington and Woody Strode were both superstars at UCLA. Washington held several team rushing records for decades and would have been a clear No. 1 draft pick (the Chicago Bears were very interested). Strode was a powerful runner. But the NFL had a “gentleman's agreement," enacted in 1933, to exclude Black players from the league.

So when their college days ended, their careers appeared to do the same. Both pursued new paths, though they still wanted a shot in the NFL. When the Cleveland Rams decided to move to Los Angeles, the only way the team could play in the publicly funded Coliseum was to integrate. After considerable pressure from Black sports writers, Washington was signed on March 21, 1946, and Strode was added to the roster two months later.
Why it matters: While neither Washington nor Strode had lengthy football careers (Strode would become well known as an actor), their efforts cracked the door open on NFL integration. By 1952, every team except one had at least one Black player. Now, the NFL is 70 percent people of color.
Testimonial: "The things they had to go through, the abuse they had to fight through in order to succeed. You can argue that their accomplishments mean a lot more than accomplishments of today given everything that they had to endure." —Author Dan Taylor, who wrote a book about Washington
The person: Michael Sam
The story: When Tampa Bay defensive end Carl Nassib announced he was gay in 2021, the news was well-received, and Nassib quickly moved on to the business of football. Michael Sam is the reason why. A defensive end for the University of Missouri, Sam had a brilliant season in 2013, capped by being named Southeastern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year. He was expected to be a high pick in the upcoming NFL draft. In February 2014, Sam announced he was “an openly proud gay man."

Some NFL teams suddenly backed away from the league's first openly gay contender, and Sam wasn't selected until the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. But Sam's courage in challenging the NFL's status quo was recognized by many. He received the ESPYs Arthur Ashe Courage Award, was named a GQ Man of the Year, and was a Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year finalist. And even though Sam's football dreams never materialized—he retired in 2015 without ever having played in a regular season game, citing mental health reasons—his simple statement of truth would have far-reaching consequences.
Why it matters: Sam's announcement may have been the beginning of the end of his NFL career, but it influenced professional football culture to the degree that Nassib could be honest about his own sexuality without any issues just seven years later. The NFL now openly embraces LGBTQ+ players, fans, and employees.
Testimonial: "Here's the truth: Everyone owes Michael Sam such a bit of gratitude. [He] gave up something, which is potentially his entire career in the NFL, for something greater." —Former NFL cornerback Wade Davis, who came out as gay after his career ended.
The people: Amy Trask & Jennifer King
The story: The good ol' boys club in the NFL is gradually shifting, with women making strides across all levels of the game. Women made up 25.3 percent of teams' senior administration in 2021. Amy Trask broke the NFL's glass ceiling in 1997. She became the Oakland Raiders' CEO in 1997, making her the first woman to earn that position. She held the role until 2013, and served as an inspiration for other women aspiring to land key league positions.

Women are on the field now as well. Jennifer King was a former Women's Football Alliance player who wanted to stay connected to the game she loved. Working her way through the NFL Women's Careers in Football program and several internships, King earned the role of assistant running backs coach with the Washington Commanders in 2021, making her the first Black woman to coach full-time in the NFL. That season, there was a record 12 women working as assistants.
Why it matters: These women trailblazers have helped create a trickle-down effect at all levels of football. Nicole Lynn recently became the first Black female agent to represent an NFL draft pick; Antoinette Harris is the first woman to earn a scholarship in college football; and California high school senior Bella Rasmussen became the first woman to receive a name/image/licensing (NIL) deal.
Testimonial: "The face of the NFL is changing, and the look of the NFL is changing. And there's no question that there is no slowing down this train. Progress will continue." —Sam Rapoport, NFL Women's Careers in Football creator.
The person: Art Shell
The story: Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard became the first Black coach in NFL history in 1921 when he led the Akron Pros for one season. It took a long time for the second. Partway through the 1989 season, Raiders owner Al Davis made waves by naming Art Shell as head coach. It was a monumental selection, one that still reverberates around a league that continues to fall short on racial equity in team leadership. The future Hall of Famer would turn the slumping Raiders around, going 7-5 to finish the campaign. The next season, Shell led the team to a 12-4 season and a spot in the AFC title game.

Shell proved emphatically that Black coaches had what it took to lead a team. Should that have been a question? No. But Shell opened the door for leaders like Dennis Green, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, and Mike Tomlin. Even with the landmark adoption of the Rooney Rule, which states teams must interview minority candidates, there have been just 24 other Black coaches since Shell.
Why it matters: While the NFL, with just two Black head coaches, has work to do, progress is being made elsewhere. For the second year in a row, half the teams in the XFL football league were led by Black head coaches.
Testimonial: "We're going to keep pushing. We're committed." —Jonathan Beane, NFL chief diversity and inclusion officer
The person: Chris Nowinski
The story: For years, player safety was almost an afterthought in the dangerous game of football. Injured players were pressured to re-enter games. Fans and commentators celebrated vicious hits. Players sued the league in 2011, saying the NFL misled them on the seriousness of concussions. Even today, when safety measures have improved, the 2022 season saw Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovialoa deal with three concussions and Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffer a horrifying cardiac episode on the field.

Former college football player and neuroscientist Chris Nowinski co-founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation in 2007 to help normalize the conversation around brain trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, injuries most associated with football. Initially, Nowinski received pushback from the league on his CTE research. But after working with Nowinski and others, the NFL has acknowledged the dangers of repeated hits and implemented new guidelines on concussion protocol, improved helmets, and created other safety measures. Nowinski serves on the NFL Players Association's Health and Safety Committee. He continues to push leaders at all levels of football, from pros to peewee, to take concussions seriously and have player safety at the forefront of all football decisions.
Why it matters: Why it matters: CTE has been identified in the brains of over 320 former NFL players. With players getting bigger, faster, and stronger each year, hits to the head are an even greater concern. About 50 percent of parents now think tackle football is inappropriate for children. Nowinski's advocacy has led the NFL to implement new protocols that both carefully monitor if a player has suffered a concussion and prevent them from returning to a game until they pass certain baseline tests.
Testimonial: "I applaud Chris. What he's done has moved the needle and changed things." —former NFL linebacker Chris Borland, who retired in 2015 due to his concern with brain trauma

American society has come a long way since Kenny Washington and Woody Strode broke the NFL’s color barrier in the 1940s—and even since Michael Sam came out publicly in 2014. With more than 17 million fans watching regular season games, the most popular sport among US fans has a clear influence over American culture. From the growing presence of women in the industry to increased actions to protect player health and well-being, the bravery of the trailblazers above has proven that social progress is possible, on the field and off.

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Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith is a freelance writer and children's book author in Northern Virginia who spends way too much time agonizing over his favorite sports teams and watching bad movies. Jean-Claude Van Damme once wished his family happy holidays after an interview, which thrilled him to no end.

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