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NFL's Anthem Gesture Seems Forced, Inauthentic

MarineCorps NewYork via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Imagine you’re preparing to impress a first date at the best restaurant in town. Or, better yet, the dates have gone so well over a period of time that you’re ready to pop the question at said bistro. 

You want everything to go just right, but when the moment comes, the restaurant screws up the occasion. Their way of squaring things? Giving you a free dessert. 

That’s essentially the scenario in play with the NFL’s announcement  that its teams will launch the season by playing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” just prior to the “Star-Spangled Banner” before each opening weekend game, including here in Baltimore next Sunday.


If you didn’t know better, you’d think that the NFL is attempting to introduce “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to the American populace the way Donald Trump apparently thought he was teaching the nation about Juneteenth. And you know how well that went over. 

The song that has come to be known as the Black National Anthem is a masterpiece. full of stirring imagery from a poem written by former NAACP president James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. 

In any other time and with any other organization, playing “Lift Ev’ry Voice” would be a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and conciliation. 

But, in this wave of wokeness and coming from the NFL, this action feels desperate and insincere, like a group of people trying to frantically catch a train that has already zoomed out of the station. 

In fairness, the NFL made a decade-long, quarter billion-dollar commitment to fight systemic racism two years ago.

And its commissioner, Roger Goodell, has uttered the phrase “Black Lives Matter, casting himself and the league as all in in the fight, at least rhetorically.

But that money and Goodell’s words appear frankly hollow given the NFL’s track record. For instance, while the league has made this glitzy donation to social justice, its owners have kept their money in their pockets in terms of hiring.

Though Black players make up more than 60 percent of the NFL’s on-field personnel, only three coaches, Miami’s Brian Flores, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin are African American, though Washington’s Ron Rivera is Hispanic. 

The news is worse in the front office, where there are only two Black general managers, Cleveland’s Andrew Berry and Chris Grier of the Dolphins, who hired Flores as coach. The Washington football team recently made Jason Wright the league’s first ever Black team president. There are no Black NFL owners.

Meanwhile, Goodell’s soaring rhetoric has hardly been matched by his employers, the 32 team owners. Excusing the Green Bay Packers, who are a community-owned property, only one NFL owner, the Ravens’ Steve Bischotti, has joined Goodell in uttering the words “Black lives matter.”

Saying you’re sorry when you’ve been wrong is a good first step and the NFL’s musical move is just that and the league should be commended for it, though that should hardly be the end of it. 

Besides, as commentator Jemele Hill has pointed out, the league should be aware that most Black people don’t know the second and third verses of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” But then, most Americans don’t know the “Star-Spangled Banner” has three more verses either.

And that’s how I see it for this week. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.


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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.