The NFL’s journey from banning kneeling to playing the ‘Black national anthem’ before every game in this season’s opening week

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My, how times have changed.

The NFL is hoping to step “out from the gloomy past” by playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song commonly known as the Black national anthem, prior to kickoff of every game played during the season’s opening week, according to a source that spoke with The Undefeated.

It is just one of a variety of measures the league is considering to express solidarity with the victims of police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, reports The Undefeated’s Jason Reid. One such idea, in collaboration with the NFL Players Association, includes placing a list of the names of victims, like George Floyd, on player jerseys or helmets.

It is a surprising development from an organization which had previously opted to punish players who protested police brutality on the field.  

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the symbol of player protest in 2016 when he first refused to stand for, and then began kneeling during, the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”  

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said after a preseason game with the Green Bay Packers. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The controversy caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who first attacked Kaepernick and the NFL over the player protests in 2017, erroneously linking them to disrespecting the national anthem. “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 right now, out, he’s fired,’” he said during a rally supporting Senator Luther Strange of Alabama.

In May 2018, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced a policy requiring any NFL players on the field during the national anthem to stand, empowering the league to fine any teams with players who didn’t comply.  

But in an 81-second video of Goodell released early last month via Twitter, Goodell admitted that the league had been wrong in its handling of peaceful NFL player protests of police brutality and systemic racism. “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People,” Goodell said in the video. “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”

Whether he will learn the words to the Black national anthem in time to sing along, remains to be seen. 

It’s a song worth knowing. 

Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first conceived as a poem by educator, author, lawyer, activist, and songwriter James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) at the end of the 19th century. It was later set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), in 1899. James had an extraordinary career: He served as the first operating officer of the NAACP, became U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua under President Theodore Roosevelt, and later, the first African-American professor hired by New York University. 

In 1900, the poem made its public debut as part of a recital performed by 500 children at the all-Black Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday during Booker T. Washington’s visit to the school. By 1919, the NAACP adopted it as the “Negro National Anthem,” enshrining it in the hearts of generations of Black families.

And starting in September, it may become the opening act for the newly woke NFL.

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