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Roxanne Jones: For the NFL, silence is golden when it comes to political issues

Fans looking for a Meryl Streep-style speech during Super Bowl won't get one, Jones writes

Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM-WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers.

(CNN) —  

A couple of weeks before Super Bowl XLII in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, I was on assignment for ESPN in Milan, covering Men’s Fashion Week. With me were two professional athletes – former NFL superstar Terrell Owens and an NBA rookie, Al Horford – both fashionistas in their own right. I’d chosen the guys to be my fashion correspondents.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

Watching Owens and Horford on that trip highlighted, at least for me, the glaring differences between the cultures of the NFL and NBA and how players in those respective sports consider their roles in our society, even today, and their right to speak out on issues of social justice or civil rights.

In Italy, all anyone wanted to know was: “What do you think about Obama?” Terrell and Al were two of less than a handful of black men attending Fashion Week and the European media outlets were eager to talk to them both. But Terrell, one of the NFL’s biggest stars back then who was never known to hold his tongue on any issue, wasn’t having any of it.

“Nah, I don’t do politics. I don’t vote. No comment,” he would say each time he was asked anything about Obama. Clearly, he was worried that any remotely political comment would hurt his football career. It’s worth noting now that Owens, who appeared on “The Celebrity Apprentice” after he retired, somehow found his political voice and endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Heading into Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, not much has changed. In 20 years as a sports journalist, I heard this refrain often, mostly from NFL players who’d been coached by agents, coaches and others to keep mum on issues outside of the game. Whether the topic is social justice, domestic violence or gay rights, the NFL has done a very good job of keeping its troops in line. In a league where contracts are not guaranteed, your biggest payday likely comes from sponsors. And nothing scares away NFL endorsement deals quicker than a man with strong opinions.

For a minute, I was encouraged when it looked like San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick could break the code of silence around politics in the NFL. But not even his courageous refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutality was enough. In the end, the protest was watered down throughout the league. Players bowed to the intense criticism they faced in their own locker rooms, from the media, and from sponsors and police unions. By the end of this season, Kaepernick mostly kneeled alone.

Al Horford, on the other hand, refused to let the game be his only voice. Back in Italy, Horford, never shied away from talking politics. He understood his history and the fight for civil rights. He eloquently talked about his hope for America and the importance of equality for black people.

Horford, currently with the Boston Celtics, understood even then that he was part of a league that – despite the me-me, money-money attitude of the Michael Jordan era – has a deep connection to the civil rights movement. That it’s OK for a man to show compassion for his fellow citizens, to stand for more than the game he plays.

From activist Bill Russell, the league’s first black coach in 1966, and Magic Johnson, who advocated for those with HIV/AIDS, to LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade – who have not only been outspoken about issues of police brutality and the killings of unarmed black people but have also taken the league to task over issues of free agency and players’ rights – the NBA and its players have always been connected to social justice issues.

The NFL? Different ballgame altogether. There, silence is golden.

So, good news. If you’re a fan who likes to keep real life from interrupting your football, rest easy. This year, there’ll be no Black Panther salutes at halftime like we saw last year in Beyonce’s spectacular halftime show. No, Meryl Streep-like shaming of President Trump.

Lady Gaga, who’s attention-grabbing antics have worn thin along with her music, needs this performance to propel back into the headlines. She’ll play by the NFL rules.

And Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, who sported a “Make America Great Again” hat back when candidate Trump was bashing Mexicans, he will not talk politics. Hat or no hat, Brady will never say he supports President Trump. That would mean actually engaging on issues of social justice, women’s rights, immigration — a road he’s never taken. He’ll keep it simple.

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“Donald is a good friend of mine. I have known him for a long time. I support all my friends. That is what I have to say. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s always been so supportive of me,” Brady said in October 2016.

The NFL is back to business as usual. What a shame.