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Keith Strudler: St. Louis Rams Protest

Perhaps the last thing the NFL needs right now is this. Just as league officials were looking for something, anything, to divert the national gaze from Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, they go from the frying pan to the bonfire. That oncoming train came in the way of the St. Louis Rams. During the introduction of Sunday's home game against the Oakland Raiders, five Rams exited the tunnel with their hands raised in the now familiar "Don't Shoot" pose synonymous with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. These five athletes, all African-American, received far, far more attention than the reported 75 or so protesters outside the stadium doing the exact same thing, only for a whole lot longer. The on-field statement lasted all of a few seconds, before the Rams  proceeded to beat the Raiders by 52 points, which probably says more about Oakland than anything else.

Not surprisingly, the St. Louis Police Officers association was none-too-pleased with this display of free speech, and called for the NFL to penalize the five Rams players. Also not surprisingly, the NFL and the Rams have steered clear of this like a cruise ship to a hurricane, neither suspending the players nor taking any particular stand on the incident. As far as the NFL is concerned, this event never happened, something they can't really say about most of their other troubles. Clearly, the NFL has no winning strategy here. Publicly support the athletes, and they appear anti-police and threaten offending their conservative customers. Scold the athletes, and they appear insensitive to Brown's death and risk a real fracture between management and the over 2/3 of the players that are African-American. This is what's commonly known as the place between a rock and a hard place. To the Rams credit, they have been supportive of the greater Ferguson community, offering their practice facilities to the Ferguson high school football team when the original unrest closed schools. So it would be unfair to label the NFL and the Rams in particular as anything less than good citizens.

There have been others in the athletic space who have also been vocal about Ferguson. Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and a host of others have tweeted their disappointment about the grand jury's decision not to indict. Charles Barkley took a different tact during several interviews, supporting the general police establishment and critiquing looters and protesters. All of these messages have come from individual athletes, not from any league headquarters, all of which have been conspicuously quiet on this national affair.

Political activism, to the extent that this event was, has long been a part of athletics, even if that general movement has ebbed in the era of excessive athletic capitalism. We're far removed from the '68 Olympics, where John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists on the medal stand to protest American civil rights. Of course, those two athletes were punished severely for their efforts, removed immediately from the Games and shunned by the athletic and general publics. That's a stark contrast to what we've seen today, where inflammatory voices on the Rams are largely relegated to the fringes of talk media, where opinions are simply commodities to buy and sell. For the most part, Americans are either too apathetic or too afraid to care, particularly as the third rail known as race has reached an electrified peak.

But the question remains, was this protest, as it was, the right thing to do? Should professional athletes use their platform, during a nationally televised NFL game, to make a political statement like this? The answer, not surprisingly, is complex. And it has little to do with the notion of free speech, which though guaranteed, certainly isn't always privileged by an employer that pays handsomely for your services.

But my perspective is this. These five athletes had every right, perhaps even obligation to remind the public of the injustice of race in America. Particularly given the power of their platform and the obviousness of race in their particular workplace, it makes sense. But these athletes do need to realize this. Raising your hands on an NFL field can't simply be a one-off. It has to be a beginning. So, these five athletes need to be prepared to talk about race in America -- not just in platitudes as they did after the game, but with passion and detail. Just like Carlos and Smith did after the Games, to whomever would listen. That's what a role model does.

NFL athletes have a significant platform, one that could be leveraged for more than simply selling shoes and tickets. Let's hope the St. Louis Rams could be the start of just that. It's something we all, including the NFL, desperately need.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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