It’s become increasingly difficult to watch football for many reasons. One, is that I can’t go without cringing whenever I watch a game. Every time someone cracks his helmet against the ground or two players collide head-to-head, I can’t help but think about the number of years being taken off their lives.
The Super Bowl is an exception, though — it is too colossal of an event to ignore. So, I actually watched it this year. Rather than reigniting my long-gone love for football, the Super Bowl reminded me why I decided to desert watching the NFL in its entirety.
1. During commercials, the NFL publicized that they vow to “combat systemic racism” through a $250 million fund — all while sweeping Colin Kaepernick, derogatory team names and customs (and more) under the rug.
The NFL’s official statement about working against systemic racism falls flat given the league’s history of perpetuating it. The list of racist incidences in the NFL is long, and we could sit here all day going through each and every time the league committed such offenses. But this year’s Super Bowl was particularly tone deaf.
Despite the game’s main focus on centering battling quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, the work of one particular quarterback was still painfully erased. When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at games to protest police brutality and anti-Blackness in 2016, NFL executives responded negatively. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he disagreed with Kaepernick’s actions. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman estimated 90 to 95% of NFL front offices “hated” Kaepernick at the time. It makes sense, then, that the NFL was forced to settle with Kaepernick after he sued the league for colluding to keep him unsigned after leaving the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. He’s hasn’t played professional football since. Other professional players continued to kneel, though, until the NFL ruled in 2018 they would not be able to do so without being fined. They only just lifted the ban this past season, in light of increasing pressure from nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Amid the Super Bowl’s overt and commercialized messages about social change, there was no mention of Kaepernick or anything related to his movement — and yet the field’s end zones were decorated with the words “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us.”
These messages completely ignored the issue regarding one of the night’s contenders: the Kansas City Chiefs and its culture of derogatory chants. While the NFL publicized their so-called “devotion” to antiracism, fans in the stands (and all throughout the country, probably) engaged in a made-up cheer that includes a motion described as the “tomahawk chop,” which perpetuates archaic, ignorant and harmful stereotypes of Native Americans. The Kansas City Indian Center recently put up two billboards along local highways that read, “Change the name. Stop the Chop.”
The NFL’s monetary donations and words are meaningless if they fail to hold themselves accountable as an institution that promotes and perpetuates systemic racism.
2. The Super Bowl saw its very first female referee take the field. Yet, Antonio Brown took the field, too.
Antonio Brown is only the most recent example of the NFL’s complicity in violence against women and children. In the past few years, Brown has dealt and is actively dealing with serious domestic violence issues: a lawsuit after he threw furniture from his 14th floor apartment and barely missed a 22-month-old boy (he settled); a lawsuit filed by his former personal trainer who accuses him of sexual assault and rape; detailed sexual assault allegations from an artist hired to paint a mural in his home published in Sports Illustrated; and a video that shows him verbally abusing the mother of three of his children. His actions were never condemned. Brown only received an eight-week suspension from NFL for an unrelated incident involving burglary and assault charges against a truck driver. Through it all, he’s managed to keep a job. After being released by the New England Patriots, Brown was signed by the Buccaneers.
Now, he’s been rewarded with a Super Bowl ring.
Sarah Thomas also made an appearance as the very first female referee to officiate a Super Bowl. While her achievement should not be dismissed in any way, it is difficult for many women — especially survivors of sexual assault — to look at Thomas and convince themselves that the NFL is genuinely advocating for women. Supporting women involves seriously listening to their stories. But catching a pass in the end zone, there was not Thomas, but Brown — unscathed, unbothered, and with a Super Bowl under his belt.
3. The NFL invited 7,500 vaccinated frontline workers to the game and publicly commemorated their work. At the same time, the NFL also saw over 700 COVID-positive cases throughout its season, and the Super Bowl was a super spreader event.
There’s not much else to add. There were sad yet predictable celebratory gatherings all throughout Tampa Bay following the game’s result, and people from all around the country flew in to watch in bars without masks.
The irony is palpable.
Illustration by Gabi Rodriguez
Jane Shin Agler is the Managing Editor at Redacted Magazine. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and currently pursuing a master's in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her work centers around pop culture, sports, social justice and politics. She is a proud Chicagoan, second-generation Korean-American and advocate for the Oxford comma.