Colin Kaepernick, who ignited a national civil rights discussion when he knelt during the national anthem last NFL season in protest of racial injustice, still has no team. No club has signed Kaepernick since he became a free agent in March, the new season starts in two weeks, and the NAACP is outraged.
On Wednesday, the NAACP posted an open letter to the NFL demanding a meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss Kaepernick’s status. It also held simultaneous rallies in New York City (right outside NFL headquarters) and Atlanta.
To be clear: There is not, at this time, an NAACP boycott of the NFL. But the head of the Atlanta chapter tells Yahoo Finance unequivocally that the group is serious about initiating one if it doesn’t get a Goodell meeting.
“If there’s not a meeting before the start of the season, it’s my belief that the coalition will call for a boycott of the NFL,” says Gerald Griggs, an attorney and VP of the NAACP’s Atlanta chapter.
Of course, Goodell can’t force a team to sign Kaepernick.
“We know the commissioner doesn’t have that power,” Griggs says, “But the fan bases that are parts of our organizations do. So at the same time we are demanding a meeting with Roger Goodell, we are also requesting meetings with the team owners in our local markets. And we have a branch in every city where there’s an NFL team.”
The NAACP has not officially heard from the NFL, but Griggs says that unofficially, “part of the response we heard was that he’s traveling. Well, we can meet him anywhere. Delta flies to most major cities.”
An NFL spokesperson tells Yahoo Finance, “We have yet to receive a letter.”
Last season, while Kaepernick was protesting, the NAACP “did not get involved vocally,” Griggs says, beyond supporting his First Amendment rights, which is an issue it always promotes. But now, officials feel compelled to act because, “we saw a pattern of preventing him from being employed. And now we are dedicated to the outcome of him pursuing employment.”
More players are protesting during the anthem
Meanwhile, even though Kaepernick himself is not playing, multiple players appear to be taking up his mantle in preseason: Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders; Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks; Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles (supported by white teammate Chris Long); and 12 Cleveland Browns players, among others, have all knelt or sat during the anthem in preseason.
Some critics say the message of the protests is getting muddied: Are these players protesting police brutality, like Kaepernick did, or are they protesting Kaepernick’s lack of a team? (We debate the effectiveness of these ongoing protests in the below Yahoo Finance video.)
Griggs says the point is the larger symbolism. “Regardless of their rationale for protesting, it is highlighting the greater issue of racial injustice in this country. That is what this has always been about and will always be about. It has sort of shifted because of the actions of the NFL, we believe, preventing Mr. Kaepernick from playing football. But we support those players and we would call on more players to send a message to the owners that in this country, at this time, our constitutional rights are more important.”
Potential risk for the NFL’s business partners
Beyond being a hot story for sports media, when might this issue hurt the NFL’s pockets? If and when it extends to the corporate sponsors.
The NFL’s largest corporate partners include blue-chip consumer brands like McDonalds, Ford, Chevrolet, Verizon, and Pepsi.
And Griggs says the NAACP has those companies in its sights.
“It would be my hope that companies with good conscience, that realize civil rights are important, would take a long hard look at the NFL. And if the NFL chooses to side with the wrong side of history, they need to act appropriately. Because the grassroots people are speaking loudly with one voice. The advertisers need to take a strong, hard look at the NFL.”
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.