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OPINION: Yes, Vic Fangio, there is racism in the NFL

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But I understand where you were coming from; and now it’s time to change it.

Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

*Editor’s note: I write this piece with a heavy heart for what has been happening in the country the past 10 days, but really the past 10 generations. I’ve debated saying nothing and “just listening” to the hurting voices out there - especially since writing about this topic, something I’ve done on multiple occasions in this forum, usually ends up a dumpster fire rather than a dialogue. But our coach was one of the people making national headlines over his comments this week, and several of our players were among the more outspoken voices from the beginning. So it seemed cowardly to avoid the topic just because of the conversation that would likely follow. In fact, not having the tough conversations is part of why we are where are when it comes to race in this country. I know there will be a lot of disagreement with my opinion, with writing about the issue in the first place, with others’ commentary on here. That’s fine. But I implore you all to engage in the conversation with some respect; listen to all the statements made by so many of our black players about how their lives have been impacted by this issue, and try understanding where your fellow Broncos’ fan may be coming from before just lashing out. Because anyone being a jackass, no matter your viewpoint, will absolutely be banned. Also, before you complain about the headline, it’s a take on the 1897 editorial in The Sun, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” This editorial is a little more serious.

Broncos coach Vic Fangio answered a question on Tuesday about how player activism in the NFL has evolved over the years.

His answer was genuine to his experience but it was immediately clear what would make headlines.

“I just don’t think there’s been a tremendous change, and I don’t say that to be negative. I think our problems in the NFL along those lines are minimal. We’re a league of meritocracy. You earn what you get, you get what you earn. I don’t see racism at all in the NFL. I don’t see discrimination in the NFL. We live in a great atmosphere. Like I alluded to earlier, we’re lucky. We all live together joined as one for one common goal, and we all intermingle and mix tremendously. If society reflected an NFL team, we’d all be great.”

Right on cue, Fangio’s “no racism in the NFL” spread like wildfire across social media and “Vic Fangio” was trending on Twitter.

The inevitable apology came, but the debate over it actually highlights the fundamental issue - not enough people see the racism that is there.

Is there racism in the NFL?

Absolutely. It’s embedded in our society and exists throughout its institutions.

Is it overt racist acts?

Almost never.

Is Vic Fangio wrong to say that he doesn’t see racism in the NFL?

No.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist - or that many people in the NFL don’t deal with on a daily basis. In fact, it proves the opposite. It shows what white privilege has allowed so many of us not to notice.

We don’t notice that there are only three coaches of color in the league and wonder why that number isn’t more than it was when the Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003. There are just two general managers of color for a sport in which 70% of the athletes are black.

We notice but often scoff at the Rooney Rule as a token application of diversity in hiring practices across the league.

We see the NFL’s 82.3% score for racial hiring practice in 2019 and consider that a “pretty good job” - despite the fact that it’s the lowest score in 15 years and a 6.7% drop from last year’s 89%.

Martellus Bennett did a much better job explaining how/where it really exists in the NFL - often in ways numbers and percentages can’t describe - in a Twitter thread on Wednesday.

But more importantly, we don’t notice how the lives of African-American football players are drastically different off the field from their white counterparts in the locker room. Even as highly paid, elite athletes and semi-celebrities, many black players still find themselves at risk in the public sphere because of their color.

I believe Fangio was being very honest when he answered the question. His other comments bear this out:

“I’ve been in the NFL or pro football since 1984 and I never have been around a problem in that regard, and it’s because we all come together with common goals, we all learn about each other, we spend a lot of time with each other and we move forward,” he said. “We don’t have the same amount of problems that maybe society as a whole has in our atmosphere.”

Because in his worldview, racism probably means blatant acts of discrimination to African Americans - such as racial slurs or segregation or unfair stereotypes.

Instead, in Fangio’s locker rooms, the coach likely saw black and white men get along, become friends, listen to the same music, spend time with each other’s families, stay friends after their football careers were over. And when he went home, he didn’t personally think any differently of his white or black players as people, so he would naturally believe that was true among the team.

What he wouldn’t see - and what very few of the white players, coaches, staff members at his NFL teams likely would see - is that those African American players left the stadium with a different mindset. A mindset that says they have to be twice as good to be considered legit; a mindset that reminds them to constantly look over their shoulders when they go out in public; a mindset in which it is ingrained to tell their children the same thing their parents told them - do not look at police the wrong way, do not talk back even if you’re correct, do not joke around because you may be shot for being black.

For Vic Fangio - and every white person in America - life is not like that. There are plenty of hardships and challenges and injustices. People of every color can point to instances of unfair and unjust treatment for a variety of reasons. But white people are not being killed for their color. That’s a fact.

Chargers’ head coach Anthony Lynn, one of the few African American coaches in the NFL, told the L.A. Times this week that one of the obstacles to change has been “good white people” who just don’t see racism as a problem.

“They don’t believe people can do the things they do and be this evil. They just don’t believe it,” Lynn said. “And I’m like, ‘Guys, you are so naïve and you’re so naïve because you’re really good people.’ I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but your naïveté is hindering the cause.”

Colin Kaepernick tried to get our attention with a peaceful protest against police brutality and highlight a need for criminal justice reform. Because the protest took place during the national anthem - and because too many politicians and news media outlets needed a good guy-bad guy scenario for attention - Kaepernick’s message got lost in a debate that was never intended.

But his goal - and the torch that former Broncos’ linebacker Brandon Marshall took up in Denver - was always about highlighting injustice, asking fans and all Americans to notice it and help change it.

NFL coaches like Fangio - as well as owners and players and fans alike - should have paid closer attention then, and maybe we wouldn’t be here now.

But we are here, and there are plenty of players making powerful and respectful statements asking all of us to see it, notice it, change it.

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