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Is the NFL Fanning the Flames of Divisive Politics?

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Those were the words of ex-San Francisco 49ers star quarterback, Colin Kaepernick used to explain his reason for kneeling during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of NFL games in 2016. He said it was in protest of the social injustice and inequality many have experienced as African-Americans in this country. Later other NFL athletes joined the protest by either kneeling, raising their fist, or sitting in the locker room during the pre-game rendition of the national anthem. These actions were broadcast directly into living rooms right across the country every Sunday afternoon.  These athletes were using their public platform to focus America’s attention on police brutality, and particularly police violence in African-American communities.

 

Kaepernick’s Kneeling; an act that he himself has called an extension of the Black Lives Matter Movement, brought politics, sports and media together in a way that is believed by many to be unprecedented. However, despite the strong reaction from many critics, pro football has a long history of directing the nation’s attention on social issues. The beloved sport has been a perfect lens to look deep into the values that we as a country hold so dear.

What made the protest so controversial was how it spurred an emotional conflict of ideals that seemed to break along the lines of what the national anthem represented to various citizens. Some took deep offense to the fact that many of our brave men and women in uniform (our armed forces) had died for the nation that the flag represents. Where Kaepernick’s protest began as a statement about police and unequal treatment in communities, had been received as a sign of disrespect and disloyalty to the country. Many people, whose family members fought in our country’s wars, reacted to the protest in a very personal way. In addition, there were many people who had no family members in the military, but their political leanings are such that they feel a natural kinship and pride when it comes to our country, our flag and our service members. As part of this respect, all NFL games begin with an observance of the national anthem and ask all in attendance to stand up during the performance. Over the years, this observance has grown to elaborate displays of precision such as, military jet flyovers, smoke-can paratroopers descending directly onto the gridiron, military regiment presentations, and the unfurling of a massive flag that across the entire field. The simple act of not standing, and then kneeling during the anthem, pushed open a rift between two ideals that until then had sat just beneath the quiet peace of the game; where people who understand extreme social inequity and those who understand personal sacrifice for the national good, were put at odds.

DECLINING TELEVISION RATINGS

Television viewership has dropped by 20% over the course of the 2016 season, attributed by some to the protest and the backlash. Many had felt that the NFL franchise owners and the League President, Roger Goodell, acted too slowly and had no true opinion of their own (other than making money) which disappointed people on both sides of the issue. Weeks went by while the protests continued, and the voices of support or anger grew stronger in the media. In fact, President Donald Trump weighted in on the issue with his own brand of rhetoric saying, If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” He would continue the call for players to be fired for kneeling well into the 2017 season. During that time, the conservative and progressive media outlets entrenched themselves to serve the echo chambers of their constituents.

The sprawling narratives began to wander. What started off with the issue of racial injustice and police brutality, and the disrespect of military and our national pride, seemed to change as time went on. Some media hubs began to highlight the rights of the players to exercise their rights as citizens to free speech, while other media groups presented the outrage some felt over football player pay as a reason for them to “shut up and play” (being that the country had been so good to them). Neither of these later narratives allowed the nation a chance to have a frank honest discussion about the root of the initial issues. Media on both sides of the issue did the country a disservice, by seeking to build a wider audience narrative to the American public. Police brutality of Black people does not sell ads as much as big corporations and politicians trampling on the first amendment, and likewise, military families are not as big of an audience as malcontents and cynics who scoff at high pay and social conciseness (believing that the two cannot coexist at the same time).

DWINDLING FAN BASE & ATTENTIONS DIVERTED

While it may not have been evident on television with the stadiums packed week in and week out, the political overtones began to overshadow play on the field. To be honest with you, prior to this protest, I don’t think the national anthem was even broadcast on tv regularly. Every now and then, and during the playoffs the networks would fill time with the national anthem … to see it on tv with the players standing shoulder to shoulder was a special thing. Now, during the controversy every game had the national anthem broadcast, not for the meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but to see who would kneel, who would defy American values and who would the President say should be fired in his next press conference … never mind the hurricanes and mass shooting in Las Vegas. Media was happy to focus on the NFL protest as “issue entertainment”, and not to burden viewers with real-world problems.

OPPOSING PLAYERS DENIED PLAYING OPPORTUNITY

As the NFL faced growing backlash for its missteps, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid paid a high price for standing up, or rather kneeling, for their beliefs. Neither player has found employment in the league since the 2017 season. It has been alleged that the NFL has conspired amongst its ownership to keep athletes who protest off of active rosters for speaking their minds (essentially blacklisting players). Mr. Kaepernick has taken the NFL to court over the conspiracy to keep him out of the NFL and in February 2019, he was awarded an undisclosed settlement to end the collusion suit. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The NFL is doing all it can to reduce politics in the locker room and in 2019 there will most likely not be a media frenzy and shots of football players kneeling during the anthem. The NFL has made it clear with new guidelines stipulating that players must stand during the anthem or abstain by not leaving the locker room until it is over (a move that will not have juicy clips for broadcasters to replay over and over again, nor will it get the message of racial injustice into those Sunday morning living rooms across America, like the original protest was meant to do. No, the NFL money printing machine will keep on churning, players will keep on playing, owners will keep owning, and we Americans, have won and lost something very meaningful, all at the same time.

 

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Are Female Players in The WNBA Paid Fairly?

It is one of the most debated questions in sports; are women paid fairly in comparison to their male counterparts? Most sports fans and analysts would argue that the huge difference in the salary gap in basketball arises from the entire revenue that the WNBA takes in, when put beside what the NBA juggernaut makes every season. However, if we had to use that as a measuring stick, then there wouldn’t be any equality in the salary cap in any sports industry, not just basketball. It’s true that the entire WNBA doesn’t make anything near what NBA brings in, they are practically minting money. The question is, for the long-term, for ethical sports and for the dreams of young players everywhere, can the guys at the top of the money heap at least try and to make an effort to close the gap?

When Lebron James made his move to the L.A. Lakers and signed a new contract worth $154 million, an insane amount of money, no one wondered was it fair. Take it from the comment that WNBA rookie sensation A’ja Wilson wrote in a 2018 tweet, “154M ……….. must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M 🙃 [million] but Lord, let me get back in my lane”. She got a tremendous amount of flack for that, with many basketball fans (I repeat, b-a-s-k-e-t-b-a-l-l fans) telling this professional athlete to ostensibly get back in the kitchen where she belonged. What the foul!?!

 

It seems like this is the new double standard status quo. Nothing rocks the money lined boat, in so much as those people trying to raise the question of player gender pay, rarely make ripples in the situation much less waves. Wilson, on the Las Vegas Aces, is set to earn $52,564 for her first rookie season. Now compare that to her NBA counterpart, Deandre Ayton, who signed to the Phoenix Suns for $6.8 million. Both were top first round picks in their respective drafts. The difference is immense, and it doesn’t make any sense really. They both entertain and the leagues make money, but you can’t seriously say that the economics of the WNBA should have all players capped at $110,000 per year. I mean, say what you will, but they drain threes like the Splash Brothers on the west coast, but don’t get paid half of the average of what a Silicon Valley programmer makes?  This does not compute. It’s these types of pay gaps that keep fueling the inequality debate.

To make matters worse, some people are trying to keep the story on the hush, by claiming that the WNBA athletes are overpaid. Some critics would also argue that the WNBA isn’t that popular with American and international fans alike. Thus, the difference in the salary cap is justified. They say:

  • NBA raises way more revenue compared to WNBA. Therefore, it only makes sense that they will have more money to pay their players.
  • There isn’t much need to invest in a league that does not draw big crowds and is still also young and unstable.
  • The WNBA is losing money. At least that’s what the team owners keep saying.
  • The WNBA hasn’t been around long enough.

These are just some of the same tired excuses that serve to quiet those that raise the salary gap issue. What these detractors fail to recognize is that there is something more at work than economics here. The NBA and WNBA are part of the same family, they are brother and sister in the game that many Americans love. The leagues are a lesson in teamwork and leadership; a crucible of dedication and strength of will. Most of all the leagues (both NBA and WNBA) are the North Stars for which little girls and boys sail the ships of their aspirations toward. Plainly put, the game builds character, and character counts.

Fact is, the gender wage gap in professional sports is real. It exists both in pro basketball, and our society at large. Therefore, this fact shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, that women are standing up and taking notice. On International Women’s Day back in March 2019, women in Iceland left their jobs at 2:38 pm as a symbol of the amount of work they are paid in comparison to men, if set against a 5 pm end of day … an ingenious protest. Even so, it’s still really shocking how many people can balk at the idea of professional athletes having a gender pay reckoning.

It is true that since the 1980s the wage gap has narrowed slightly, but then again, pay it has remained relatively stagnant for the last 15 years. Take the study made by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017 which found that women aged between 25 to 34 earned only 0.89 cents for every dollar that a man in the same age bracket earned. Moreover, check out the difference in gender wage gap when factored in with race … it is eye watering.

According to all the data collected and studies made by the various data collection agencies, and organizations dedicated to the subject, it is predicted that the gender wage gap will be around until 2119. A hundred years from the time the time of writing this article. Imagine that. Now, how much time do you think it can take for the gender wage gap to close in basketball specifically? There are many things that the future holds, but one thing seems fairly obvious. Fair wage pay is a definitely “not any time soon” type of proposition.

Consider the fact that the WNBA pays about 20% to its players and compare this to the 50% that the NBA pays to its players, you see where the problem starts. They’re the players that make the league run (no pun intended … run it back). With the $110,000 salary cap that the WNBA paid its players as of 2018 and compare this to the $582,183 that the NBA pays per capita. From this data, it is evident that WNBA players earn about $450,000 less than rookie NBA players.

When it comes to the issue of bonuses that NBA players receive for performance, WNBA players gets an equivalent of a grocery store petty cash zipper bag.

From all the data collected about WNBA and NBA markets, it doesn’t make any sense why the wage difference between them is so high. Remember, the NBA wasn’t that well off in its early years and it took years of smart marketing to make it what it is today. Some could even argue that the WNBA started off a lot better than the NBA.

It would be a wise decision for the WNBA to take the cue from what’s happening in the World Surfing League. Starting in 2019, we should expect equal prize money awarded to male and female surfers for each WSL controlled event. This marks as the first ever US-based sports league that applies parity of pay. It’s a start, and other sports should hopefully follow suit, basketball included. Maybe one day the WNBA will realize that it was simply the right thing to do.

Final Thoughts

It is high time that the people in the stands started advocating for pay equity for the female athletes, and then maybe those in the boardrooms will start listening as well. Maybe.

In the meantime, and to the WNBA players … keep blocking shots, laying up duces and breaking fast, but most of all, keep your eyes on score. Thank you.

If you’re looking for a woman that has significantly changed her industry and all the rules in it then we’ve got a read for you!