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Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Meet the people behind a growing NFL boycott

‘Being black is bigger than watching football’

Before the regulars started to flood the pub and libations were passed around, a man stood behind the bar and stared at CNN. By 7 p.m. on this August night he was in a media-created daze. To him, he was alone. Just Kenny Johnson and the tube.

Johnson, the owner of the Bureau Bar in Chicago’s South Loop, was watching the dust settle at America’s latest football protest. Commentators spoke of the thousands who gathered on a Manhattan street, protesting the alleged blackballing of Colin Kaepernick by NFL teams.

Johnson had wondered for weeks what he could do to stand with Kaepernick. He wanted to clearly show his bars — he also owns Velvet Lounge nearby in the South Loop — would not support a league that so obviously didn’t care for the black people he employed or the values he held.

He decided on a boycott. Johnson got a graphic made that night. Johnson slapped some crude red bars across the league’s symbol to symbolize his dissent. It went up on Instagram, then Facebook. His two bars, a pebble's throw from Soldier Field, in the heart of Chicago, wouldn’t show the game. Johnson thought it was a success that Wednesday. Until the phones starting ringing.

“Shit, Thursday morning everybody started calling,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of hate. People bitching and screaming: ‘You ain’t shit.’ ‘Your bar ain’t shit.’ ‘You’re going to lose a lot of business.’ ‘We’re going to buy your bar when you’re done.’ ‘You should keep politics out of your bar business.’”

Johnson lets out an awkward laugh.

“Are we going to take a hit? Yeah, we’ll take a hit,” Johnson said. “But it’s not about the money we could make, it’s about what’s right and what’s wrong.”

This is a common refrain from people who’ve joined Johnson’s ranks. Heading into Year 2 of national protests in the NFL, these people have come together to attack the league for Kaepernick’s continued unemployment and in support of athletes continuing his stand.

The continued boycotting from Chicago to Brooklyn to Huntsville, Ala., is a response to the belief the NFL is ignoring a part of its audience and what they care about. For Johnson, that’s the awareness Kaepernick has brought to issues facing black America, whether it’s police brutality or racial injustice.

The boycotts ask: How can a league sell entertainment to black audiences, when the black men playing in it aren’t truly allowed to have a voice?

“The fact that they’re not letting him do his job for what he stood up for is more important for us,” Johnson said. “I can’t promote NFL football when they don’t want to hire a qualified African-American that protested something he believes in. Why would I try to drive business my way off of you when you don’t respect what this guy is doing.”

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first times this movement caught national eyes was when Gerald Griggs, the vice president of Atlanta’s NAACP, made a bold declaration.

“There will be no football in the state of Georgia if Colin Kaepernick is not on a training camp roster and given an opportunity to pursue his career,” Griggs said in an August press conference. "This is not a simple request. This is a statement. This is a demand.”

Spurred by the events in Charlottesville, Griggs saw an America that was being forced to reckon with itself. He saw an America, one that black citizens have seen and experienced for decades, being questioned.

Griggs specifically saw it in football. The Kaepernick Effect was spreading even with his unemployment: Players, black and white, were still taking measures to fight for what Kaepernick knelt for.

To Griggs, it gave him a moment to call for boycotting the league. The NFL, he said, is at an impasse with its fans. Until that’s resolved, protests involving boycotting are just the beginning.

“The NFL is a national pastime. If they truly want to embrace unity and foster cohesiveness, they need to understand there are two distinct sides of this conversation and both have to be addressed,” Griggs said.

Moments like his led to others. A #NoKaepernickNoNFL petition on Change.org started by 32-year-old Vic Oyedeji has grabbed more than 175,000 signatures to boycott the league. Huntsville pastor Debleaire Snell’s NFL Black0ut group reported over 7 million have viewed their videos and social postings about blacking out the league.

Gloria Blake, an owner of Brooklyn Blew Smoke, a popular cigar lounge, is turning her space into a forum for conversations on race and protest instead of hosting NFL games. Najee Ali, a Los Angeles activist, is doing non-violent actions with the National Action Network in front of Chargers and Rams games.

Even if Kaepernick doesn’t become employed, the argument goes, the quarterback can’t become a football exile for speaking out about issues people of color face daily as Americans.

“Freedom of expression is at stake,” Snell said. “As owners and GMs discuss this, they talk about it as an ancillary issue. No, this is an American issue. It’s not a side issue. It’s the issue facing African-Americans in this generation.”

Blake said: “It’s almost as if it’s asking us to separate who we are and what we believe. There’s no right way of doing this. There’s no violence. There’s no disrespect. The reality we have to expect as a people is that as long as we are willing to resist, it’s going to be considered inappropriate.”

Griggs laid it out differently. It’s not just about unemployment. It’s also about discrimination. And the players still employed by the league, Griggs said, need to consider if football is more important than standing for what’s right.

“They need to think about what their legacy is going to be and where they stood in the new Civil Rights Movement,” Griggs said. “It’s time to send a message and the message is: We will have equality now. Not later. If it needs to be Sunday evening when the world is watching, so be it.”

Rally In Support Of NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick Outside The League's HQ In New York Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Protest and boycott have threatened professional football in this country before. In 1965, just a year after the Civil Rights Act had de-segregated seating at the Sugar Bowl, black players came to New Orleans for the AFL All-Star Game. The AFL assured players nothing would be amiss.

Then black players ended up stranded at airports. By the time they got to the city, they were refused cab service. If they acquired rides, cabbies dropped them off miles from their hotels. Some were refused admittance to clubs and restaurants. Two dozen black players threatened to walk and the league moved the game to Houston.

Before the AFL boycott, fans had picketed and boycotted the NFL because Washington’s football team had refused to sign a black player. It became so contentious that Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall refused to go to games until the NAACP stopped picketing.

Knowing the league has experienced these disputes before, Snell, the Alabaman pastor, finds it odd more and more conservative or right-leaning voices think football should be apolitical. His argument is: It never was.

“There’s always been a merger between sports and politics in the history of the United States,” Snell said. “We sometimes paint this as a narrative that protesting is about the flag or veterans. The truth is: [Kaepernick] knelt, specifically, to bring attention to the fact that there is a chasm between our ideals as a society and our practice as a society.”

The wrath from anonymously quoted team personnel and owners at fan forums rebuking protest in their league is another issue boycotters are hoping to address. As outlined in a policy proposition by the United We Stand Coalition after their New York rally, protesters and boycotters want to create an atmosphere in the league where players aren’t punished for protest.

Oyedeji, the man who started the viral petition to blackout the league, said if players continued to get shunned by owners for kneeling for black or brown lives, that’s a direct insult to their stance.

“If you keep seeing stories of folks protesting, if we keep talking about it, something will have to give,” he said. “Either they sign Kaepernick or they protect the players from punishment if they want to partake in social activism. The NFL has to do something.”

Ali, the Los Angeles organizer, offered a common phrase about the NFL in this climate.

"The NFL is a form of the modern-day plantation," Ali said. "They're treating Kaepernick like a runaway slave, making him an example so other players get the message: Do not get too uppity or we will blackball you.”

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to measure if these boycotts or protests will do anything to affect the behemoth the NFL has become, whether in sales, ratings or by forcing the league to have to comment.

An NFL spokesperson said in August the league was looking to set up meetings with groups that have reached out. Despite these offers, which protesting groups say have been non-committal on the league’s part, Oyedeji’s problem with the NFL stems from their alienation of paying customers.

Still, like many, he didn’t have an answer to what happens next.

“When is this gonna end? I don’t know. I’m just like you, I’m staying tuned to see what happens,” he said. “These protests brought light to the fact that many people are willing to not watch the games. So, at least, I’m happy.”

Snell and his collection of pastors plan to continue an action program that calls for abstaining from viewing the league, buying merchandise, and playing fantasy football. Every morning at 6 a.m. they’re going to kneel and pray for their communities, mimicking Kaepernick. On Sundays before service, they plan to take time to mentor black boys and girls in their church’s communities.

The need to boycott the league has never been stronger, Snell said.

“We need to send a resounding message that says if the NFL is going to gloss over to issues germane to this fan base, they need to know we can organize and leverage our dollars to influence and affect change,” he said. “It’s a gross miscalculation to assume our loyalties are absolute. Certain rights can’t be trespassed on without ramifications.”

In a gentrifying Brooklyn, the boycotts make sense to Blake, the cigar lounge owner. Like Johnson, she’s not concerned about the loss of business because of her desire not to show football. She’s willing to make sacrifices if it means inching closer to equality.

All of this comes with risk. She understands that. Her stable business could be hurt, just as Johnson’s bars in Chicago might. Yet, she couldn’t ignore her customers’ calls for action, she said. She felt compelled to do whatever was in her power.

Boycotting the NFL is only one small part of the fight for racial justice. In a decade peppered with protest and calls for black lives to matter, Blake understands she is only a small part of this movement. It’s essential to her, though, that she stands on the right side of history. Because, to be quiet during a time of turmoil, is to be complicit in the continued oppression she hopes to disrupt.

“There’s a revelation of the state of this country that has come to a head and needs to be addressed. We can’t keep turning our back to the call for basic human rights,” she said.

“At this moment, being black is bigger than watching football. I can say that without hesitation.”

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