The National Football League, Morehouse College, Sports Activism and Accountability

Social Justice Theory and Praxis

The Advocacy in Sport Workshop at Morehouse is a collaboration with the NFL that utilizes the genius of Morehouse College students and professors, and the innovation of athletes in figuring how to fine-tune advocacy and individual democratic space. The workshop began in February 2018 as the result of a years-long effort to center social justice through sport, and will continue as part of a Leadership and Advocacy in Sport Initiative that will include a March 2019 workshop with athletes participating from across leagues.

Lennard Long, a senior psychology major and student-athlete at Morehouse who participated in the workshop and in its primer course offers that, “often athletes are regarded [as] simplistic. The Advocacy in Sports workshop and the work of Colin Kaepernick shows that athletes have the wherewithal and desire to use the unifying power of sports to service communities.”

With a player pool close to eighty percent Black, The National Football League and Morehouse College are important mirror images to understand in advocacy work and accountability.

The mission of Morehouse reads in part, to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service. A private historically black liberal arts college for men, Morehouse realizes this mission by emphasizing the intellectual and character development of its students.

The NFL is many things. The physical violence that is cornerstone of the sport is matched with a psychological violence that many assume in considering the cultural historical significance and optics of the owner/player/field interplay. This often inevitable read of the League makes results from social justice efforts ever more important to demonstrate as authentic and high impact.

In attending to the systemic, individual and cultural oppression that Mr. Kaepernick, the Players Coalition, and other men and women across sport are re-calling attention to with contemporary activism, the NFL is leaning into core attributes that include intellect, character, leadership, service and an unapologetic Blackness that is built in to the Morehouse College tableau. Accordingly, the NFL and Morehouse have the opportunity to represent as important solution pieces to the puzzle of social justice in effectively leveraging each institutions’ best ideas and ideals of and relating to freedom.

To be clear, unapologetic Blackness here does not connote Black uniformity or exclusion from the general body politic. It means, simply, that the whole of Black experience is a reality. And this reality can serve as a compass by which social ills can be understood and be made better. This contextualizing offers new spins on how to do good for the communities that these players and students come from, and informs a unique type of activist accountability. There is embedded a push for the advocacy to translate into actual social justice.

“I didn't know what to expect entering the program,” explains Takeo Spikes of his involvement with the NFL and Morehouse pairing. The former linebacker and 2019 NFL Hall of Fame nominee continues, “but I walked away with wisdom on how to articulate, educate, and embrace society's passion for change.”

These sensibilities govern the NFL/Morehouse College work. And in counting the partnership among the successes connected to activism stoked by the current wave of sport and social justice, there is a self-study opportunity, and an opportunity to hold our NFL selves accountable. This is practically done with the College’s Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis. The Institute looks at developing, sustained and innovative programming for positive change that is measurable and that can be mapped to related activism.

Certainly, with athletes calling attention to the need for teams to substantively invest in their community home bases, a lot of data is being made available to suggest that teams and players are doing their part in community uplift.

 Social Justice Theory and Praxis

Within the NFL, specifically, it is encouraging that there is so much activity. Initial turns at NFL-related advocacy in the areas of social justice are strong beyond the $89 million social justice package. Highlights range from the Atlanta Falcons implementing the Equal Justice Initiative’s Race and Poverty Project in Georgia and Alabama over the next two years, to the Cleveland Browns submitting a proposal in favor of Senate Bill 66 to modify criminal sentencing and corrections law, to players participating in bail reform research and activity to help shift the disproportionate impact cash bail has on poor people of color.

These examples, among others, suggest solid opportunities at figuring new paths to social justice. Accountability is had in determining how the work is culturally inclusive and responsive, and is amplified in thinking on the debt owed to Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robison, Althea Gibson and an unsung number of others from decades prior.

Work that began just over two years ago at Morehouse College as a series of hushed summits of sport politicos, athletes and activists is now a moral and ethical social contract between Morehouse, the NFL and potentially several other sports leagues. Harry Edwards and John Carlos were active participants in those formative meetings and continue to provide direction. Their sustained examples of unapologetic blackness some fifty years beyond their iconic Black Power Salute with Tommie Smith and Peter Norman portend the types of creative engagement we must continue to assume for a nation that has more to learn from the black experience so that we can all get free.

David Wall Rice,
PhD is associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College, and is Director of the Institute for Social Justice Theory and Praxis at the College's Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership