Why NFL players kneel: N-words at Arrowhead Stadium

When two NFL teams whose names have drawn protests from Native Americans met in Kansas City on Monday night, some Chiefs fans reportedly (and repeatedly) called Washington receiver Terrelle Pryor, Sr. the n-word.

Pryor responded by yelling the f-word and flipping them off. He later apologized and explained on Instagram: “Being called a (n-word) several times to the point where an NFL employee had to step to me and stand by me the whole game from 2nd quarter on is the exact reason why guys are kneeling during anthem … I do apologize to my teammates and the organization. But at some point you keep calling us The N word … we going to start acting up.”

Now the NFL is investigating the whole back-and-forth. There’s no doubt that a player going off on fans isn’t a good look for his team or city — and the same is true of Chiefs player Marcus Peters, who also cursed at the crowd during the same game. As Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said afterwards, “Of course, it’s not a good thing, not a win there, to get into it with fans.”

But those n-word shouting fans were representing Kansas City, too, and in a way we need to look at. Anyone — like The Star reader who recently wrote in to say that players “are there to entertain me, not protest” — who is still wondering why some players kneel only has to look at this incident to see that racism isn’t some rarely glimpsed or wholly imagined remnant of the past, but so overt that it’s literally shouted

Walking through the Arrowhead parking lot Monday, a Washington Post football writer took a photo of a tailgating Chiefs fan flying a Confederate flag emblazoned with the message, “I ain’t coming down.” And after writing about the n-word being shouted at Pryor, the Post writer, who is Eritrean, tweeted that he’d received an email that said, “You modern blacks are Satanic dogs unfit to live in America. Modern day blacks being called [n-word] is being kind.”

Both players and fans can show bias—as per the casual, clueless sexism of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s stated amazement that female reporters who cover football know the game, too. When the Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue asked him at a Wednesday news conference about wide receiver Devin Funchess embracing the physicality of routes, he answered, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.” Yeah, hilarious. Then there’s the recent “you don’t know my heart” defense of a bar owner in the Ozarks who swore that his visual joke about yes, lynching a black man in 2017, was in no way racist.

That the sports world has more than its share of work to do on this front seems as inarguable as it is widely denied. But to prove us wrong, stop behaving in a way that can’t be defended.

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