Column: Even with a Super Bowl, why must the NFL make it so hard to be Black and a fan?

SoFi Stadium
SoFi Stadium, where the Rams will face the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When you grow up in the Midwest, you grow up liking football. Or at least appreciating it.

You have no choice.

Some of my most potent memories as a lazy teenager involve being awakened by my mother screaming at the TV over some NFL game. Usually it had to do with the Cleveland Browns finding yet another creative way to blow a double-digit lead and lose. (Some things never change.)

A decade later, I remember walking through downtown on my lunch break and coming upon a pep rally with a high school marching band. That day, I soon found out, was exactly one year before the start of the preseason.


The new Browns were on their way — and at long last. Then-owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore in 1996 and Cleveland was left franchise-less. All of which meant we didn’t even have a team, and there were people of all races with their chests painted orange and brown.

Football, I realized then, pulled my city together as a community in ways that few other things ever did — except until maybe Lebron James.

But the NFL makes it hard to be a fan. Like real hard.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times, in conjunction with SurveyMonkey, released the findings of a new poll on Americans’ feelings about professional football.

Large numbers of Republicans have soured on the NFL and disapprove of the league’s efforts to improve treatment of Black players, poll shows.

It found that while more than half of American adults say they are fans, the people who say they are less of a fan now than they were five years ago are more than twice as likely to believe the NFL is doing “too much to show respect for its Black players.”

These same folks are also less likely to approve of the so-called Rooney Rule, which mandates that NFL teams interview non-white men as candidates for head coaching jobs. (The horror!)

I want to be clear on who we’re talking about. Roughly a third of those surveyed put themselves in the category of being less of a fan — and those people disproportionately identify as Republican or independents who lean right.

A full 45% of them think the NFL does “too much” to respect Black players, compared with 22% of adults nationwide. Roughly 70% of NFL players are Black.


None of this comes as a surprise, of course.

Californians got a front-row seat to how this whole racial reckoning in the NFL was likely to shake out back in 2016. That’s when former President Trump and millions of other closed-minded white Republicans lost their collective minds, egged on by Fox News, after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat and then kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Who could forget the language that Trump used in 2017 to describe Black NFL players who decided to take a knee?

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field now!’ ” he said during a rally in Alabama (of course). “Out. Out. He’s fired!”

Well, Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since and most likely never will again.

Nevertheless, earlier Wednesday, a handful of activists gathered outside SoFi Stadium to demand that Kaepernick be given “a legitimate chance to try out” for a team again and that the NFL get serious about diversity in its highest ranks.

This comes two days after national civil rights leaders met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the failure to hire more Black head coaches. Last week, the league had only one Black head coach: Mike Tomlin of the Pittspuke — I mean Pittsburgh — Steelers.

Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, is suing the NFL and three teams alleging racial discrimination. He was fired in January despite leading the team to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in almost 20 years.

“In making the decision to file the class action complaint today, I understand that I may be risking coaching the game that I love and that has done so much for my family and me,” Flores, who is Black, said in a written statement at the time. “My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL, others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come.”

During NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s state of the league address, he says improvement must be made and will look to alter hiring rules.

Goodell, speaking at his annual state-of-the-league news conference in L.A. on Wednesday, vowed the NFL would “look into that,” calling Flores’ allegations “disturbing.”

“They are very serious matters to us on all levels,” he said, “and we need to make sure we get to the bottom of all of them.”

He also vowed to find new ways to improve diversity. “We’re not going to rest until we find that and we get those kind of outcomes that I think are mandatory for us,” he added. “That just has to be the way we’re going to move forward inclusively.”

I just wish I could believe that.

Again, none of this comes as a surprise, but it’s still something to reckon with days before a Super Bowl. To be reminded of just how systemically racist the NFL really is and how any even superficial attempt to rectify that leads people to stop watching the sport.

This is why it’s hard to be Black and a fan.

This is the second time I’ve lived in a city that has hosted a Super Bowl. And despite the findings of this poll, I’m looking forward to the energy it will bring to Los Angeles via Inglewood.

Although I’m from Ohio, I’ve decided to root for the Rams. It would be disrespectful to L.A. to do otherwise. Besides, every good native Ohioan knows Cincinnati might as well be part of Kentucky.

Kidding. I’m kidding. (Mostly).

But seriously, it would be nice if the NFL didn’t act as if it was based south of the Mason-Dixon Line, too.