Oprah, We Need to See a Better NFL

Dear Oprah,

For so many years, you have exemplified my vision of success.

You, after all, inspired me to believe I could be–was, in fact–an athlete. When you took up running, you showed me I could ignore my body’s appearance and embrace its capability. So I walked that 2-mile loop, and then I walked and ran a 4-mile route, and finally, I finished a 10K. That 10K led to more longer runs and races–all the way, eventually, to a 26.2-miler.

Marine Corps, like you, was my first marathon. That finish marked the beginning of a new love and personal discovery. For the first time ever, I was unequivocally proud of myself.

We’ve covered a lot of running miles together (and shared afternoon breaks, talking about books and paging through magazines). Well, from my end, at least; over the years, I’ve watched.

I started writing this letter around the time Trump called any NFL player who knelt to protest racist police brutality a “son of a bitch”and shortly before that 60 Minutes panel where you shepherded a group of average folks from Michigan through a conversation about (among many fraught topics) race. Putting my thoughts into letter form has been like sitting on your white couch, the two of us talking through this painful place where football and race butt heads.

You see, ever since images of angry white fans booing kneeling athletes–most of them black men—filled my TV screen, I haven’t been able to watch an NFL game.

As time passed and I noodled over this draft, the political fallout around protests became uglier. Just this week, our Tweeter in Chief rescinded an invitation and berated the Philadelphia Eagles. Never mind that no Eagles’ player took a knee last season—there’s a deeper, underlying problem staring us in the face.

Addressing the bigotry swirling around the NFL seems to involve providing what you’ve so graciously given me. As astronaut Sally Ride said a few weeks before her death,

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Ride was referring to young girls, but hey–if the cleat fits, wear it. Figures show that at least 70 percent of NFL players are black. And I wondered: What would it take to have a stadium audience that was 70 percent black?

I grew up in football-obsessed Texas. From middle school through college, each week included a gridiron game. Players were schoolmates, friends, family, idols. For decades, televised pro games were the background music to lazy Sunday afternoons. But how could any true football fan stomach Texans Bob McNair’s Oct. 2017 comment to his fellow NFL owners, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison”?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson rightly called out McNair’s attitude as “plantation mentality.”

My hometown, Austin, Texas, is a blue oasis determined to “keep it weird” and yet we’ve remained one of the most racially segregated cities in America. Within our city code, an ugly, historically mandated “plantation mentality” remains. During football season, 100,000 mostly white Texas Longhorn fans are welcomed almost weekly but 20,000 yearly high school track and field lovers cause handwringing. You see, when people of color flock to watch the Texas Relays, conversations and news coverage about downtown being “unsafe” mushroom.

Hard to feel welcome, isn’t it?

At least Austin’s eyes are open and leadership is addressing the problem of systemic racism. But the NFL’s old guard is blindly digging in, determined to show players who’s boss.

If only there were a different model.

Oprah, what if you bought an NFL team?

Now, I know these suckers are wicked expensive. Price per NFL club is some big change; the kind of cash required to break into that big-moneyed white-male stronghold is insane. But you, one of only three black women billionaires on Forbes’ 2018 list, possess the necessary bona fides and financial resources to open doors.

As the lone woman primary investor, you’d be unbeholden to a spouse or family member or inheritance. Oh, I see you entering that owners’ suite– a la strolling into St. George’s Chapel, our own American royalty—dressed to kill. Confident, powerful, at home, in charge.

Imagine the power of that TV shot.

Imagine looking out that box window to survey your team’s fans. Did you know that, as of 2017, 45 percent of the NFL’s audience was female? I see that camera panning a much more diverse crowd. People enjoying entertainment less concerned with promoting the military, demeaning cheerleaders, and controlling “inmates” and more focused on supporting teams of—dare I dream?—amazing athletes playing a game they love.

Perhaps your new perspective and unique stewardship could reverse the NFL’s current falling trends and aging audiences. At least we’d see a show that looks like America.

Whatever your team, Oprah, I’m a fan for life.

A year since I started this draft, the NFL has “compromised” by enacting a ruling that players can stay in the locker room during the anthem or be fined for kneeling on the field. A couple of owners abstained–Oakland Raider’s Mark Davis and Jed York, San Francisco 49ers–but skipping a vote isn’t remotely close to “hell, no” now, is it?

I can’t see you, Oprah, quietly abdicating that moral position. Nor missing the much bigger picture.

No, you see the issue pretty clearly—at the 2018 Golden Globes, you said we’ve been living in “a culture ruled by brutally powerful men” for too long. And you prophesied:

“Their time is UP!”

The topic was #MeToo, but are we sure you weren’t casting an eye toward the NFL? Those protesting kneeling players are speaking, and it’s high time we listened.

You recalled Sidney Poitier’s power as he took the stage to collect that 1964 Oscar (“I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that”). Mused on the message little girls absorbed when witnessing you–the first black woman so honored–receive the Cecile B. de Mille Lifetime Achievement Award this January.

Television has such power. Power to reveal our limitless possibilities. Power to expose our basest ugliness.

It’s time to change the channel. The NFL’s leadership and audience should present a better picture, one that supports diversity. And that old white boys’ club running the show? They need a powerful kick in the ass. How I’d love to see you be that catalyst for change.

Just like in 1988, when you created Harpo Studios to pay your staff—women–what they were worth. When, in 2011, you established OWN, your TV network, to showcase and promote projects by people of color. When you accepted Emmys, Oscars, and Tonys. When you legislated on behalf of abused children, provided education for young women, and put money behind March for Our Lives. When you spoke honestly and directly about the abuse you suffered as a child and young woman.

When you called out, “Their time is UP!” I knew you could see it, too.

Respectfully,

Leah

“The only reason to be a person whom everybody knows, who is successful, is to transmit the message of successfulness…is to say ‘that is possible,’ to say ‘ah; that is possible.'”~ Oprah Winfrey

Quote from Oprah Winfrey, "Their time is UP!"

More about NFL Team Owners

List of NFL Franchise Owners

Buffalo Bills Owner Kim Pegula’s statement on NFL national anthem policy

Virginia Halas McCaskey, principal owner and matriarch, Chicago Bears

Detroit Lions Acting Owner Martha Firestone Ford asks players not to knee for anthem

Gayle Marie LaJaunie Bird Benson, one of three controlling investors in New Orleans Saints

Oakland Raiders owners Carol Davis and son Mark Davis; he was “one of most eloquent speakers on social justice issue”

Tennessee Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk response to Trump 2017 tweets calling for firing of NFL players who protest during national anthem

 

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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