Empty Platitudes: What does Martin Luther King Jr. mean to the NFL?

How earnestly is the NFL trying to honor Dr. King’s legacy.

An MLK sticker is shown on the helmet of Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. before an NFL wild-card playoff football between the Rams and the Arizona Cardinals game in Inglewood, Calif., Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Today, the NFL and teams across this country will pay respect to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. They will extoll his virtue and proclaim how his dream of unity through nonviolence should be held up as a paragon for Americans everywhere.

However, the image of King that they depict is more of a sanitized caricature, rather than the man he truly was. They will conveniently omit his support of unions, guaranteed-based income and anti-war efforts. They will portray a man who gave his life for civil rights and cease to acknowledge that he was yet another Black man in America murdered for the advancement of white supremacy.

There will be nice TV segments of players sharing what they love about King, how they respect his constant challenge to white supremacy and hope to continue that legacy. Most likely, some mention will be made of peaceful protest.

Neither the NFL nor the media as a whole will celebrate King in his totality because they don’t truly care about what King stood for. Instead, they just want to appear as though they do.

The celebration, pomp and circumstance are strictly for show. It’s all just one giant virtue signal saying that they care about equal rights and justice without having to actually commit to anything that would fulfill the stances and missions King represented.

There will be no substantive segments on Dr. King or his views; everything will stay surface level so as to not offend by exposing anybody to King’s views beyond racism is bad.

The NFL indicated its desire to honor Dr. King’s legacy during its inaugural Monday Night Football Playoff game. They added stickers to team helmets in commemoration. They painted empty phrases such as “BE LOVE” and “END RACISM” in the end zones for the game. They also promised the aforementioned safe soundbites will be in the broadcast.

Superficially, the NFL’s celebrating Dr. King is positive, but how can it be substantive considering the NFL’s actual track record? The league has used race-norming to avoid settlement payouts to Black players who have suffered from dementia, and while they have claimed they will no longer use these practices, its constant use denied benefits to many Black ex-players.

The NFL is the same league that blackballed Colin Kaepernick for expressing dismay at the treatment of Black people in the United States — and has refused to acknowledge it.

It’s also the league that employs only two Black coaches and three general managers despite the fact that 59% of its players were Black in 2019. The NFL’s hiring policies have been criticized and dissected ad nauseam for years and yet we still regularly see men like Eric Bieniemy without head coaching jobs.

It’s not that an organization with these problems can’t praise Dr. King or claim to want to follow his ideals. However, if they do, they should actually be trying to fix their structural issues and not just pay Dr. King’s memory lip service.

The NFL is not alone in receiving this criticism; it could be levied at almost every sports team, league and media organization in the country. Today, everyone will extoll Dr. King and claim him as the finest of Americans and then continue to go on operating their businesses and organizations in a way that is completely antithetical to what Dr. King stood for.

The usage of Dr. King in our current sports landscape has become so performative and lacking any true substance, it’s time for sports leagues to not only evaluate who Dr. King was and what he stood for but also how we decide to celebrate and memorialize someone when we come nowhere close to living up to their values.