Colin Kaepernick’s career came to a screeching end three years ago after he spent a season kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality against people of color. His peaceful and silent demonstration set off a firestorm around the country and within NFL boardrooms, where many of the league’s 32 owners argued that the kneeling, which was duplicated by players on other teams, needed to stop because fans were angry and sponsors were skittish, jeopardizing the bottom line.
Last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted for the first time that the league got it wrong in silencing players who sought to demonstrate against systemic racism. Some have now called for owners to formally apologize to Kaepernick, but I’d also argue that we in the media owe the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback a sincere mea culpa.
Instead of staying focused on the meaning behind his protest, we allowed others to hijack the message and twist it into a discussion about the military, the anthem, patriotism, respect — everything but racial inequality or police brutality against people of color. As I watched it play out, I couldn’t help but think how the false narrative illuminated the need for increased diversity in the newsroom, particularly at the decision-making levels.
Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2018 that ethnic minorities made up less than 17% of newsrooms at print and online publications. The figure was 13% among newspaper leadership. Even in cities where minorities represented a majority of the population, local news staffs failed to reflect it. CJR reported that The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal had staffs that were both 81% white, while The Washington Post was 70% white.
Might the Kaepernick story have been treated differently with greater diversity at the top of news organizations? My gut says yes. It says that people who’ve experienced the emotional or physical pain of systemic discrimination would have remained locked on the message rather than contributing to a debate about his means of protest.
I say this with a tinge of guilt because I could have been part of the solution (in general) had I gone the editor management route coming out of Howard University. But the young me wanted the ego gratification of seeing my name in print. It was a drug and I was an addict. I needed the fix of waking early each morning, rushing to grab the newspaper (yes, I’m that old, as in pre-internet), then turning to where my story appeared.
But several-plus decades later, and more pounds than I care to admit, the words of my father ring in my ears: older and wiser. Bylines might bring recognition and, in some cases, wealth, but they are not to be confused with power. Power resides in the glass offices, not bylines. It’s where decisions are made about whether something will be covered, who will cover it, where the story will appear, and what the scope and focus will be or should be.
In hindsight, Kaepernick never had a chance. It’s one thing to fight against owners who appeared to be more concerned about their bottom line than a black life, but it’s another to get fair treatment from newsroom leaders who share neither the same melanin nor life experiences as him. If they had, perhaps they would have realized the importance of allowing his voice (and message) to ring out over the noise being driven by the rabble-rouser on Pennsylvania Avenue.
For that, Colin, we apologize.