As N.F.L. Fights Racism and Sexism, Team Owners Undercut the Message

The N.F.L. has wrestled with the issues of race and sexism more prominently than most North American sports leagues. About three-quarters of its players are Black and roughly half of its fans are women, but most majority owners are white men and the league has struggled to hire nonwhite head coaches and general managers.

Individual franchises have in recent years faced scandals involving allegations of sexist behavior.

In 2018, Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, sold the team and was fined by the N.F.L. after an investigation confirmed accusations, detailed in a Sports Illustrated report, that Richardson settled complaints of sexist and racist comments to employees with big payouts that came with nondisclosure agreements. The league fine was $2.75 million, while Richardson’s proceeds from the sale were at least $2.2 billion.

Last year, New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft was charged in Jupiter, Fla., with two misdemeanor counts of solicitation of prostitution. Kraft pleaded not guilty and a Palm Beach County judge threw out video evidence gathered in the day spa where Kraft twice went for massages. A three-judge appeals court panel last month heard arguments in the case, which is still pending. That legal outcome could prompt penalties from the league under its personal conduct policy.

The N.F.L. has tried to address sexism among players and staff by requiring teams to interview women for executive positions; instituting anti-harassment training at the league office and clubs; and requiring teams to submit plans for unconscious bias training and anti-racism training. Even so, some inclusion and diversity consultants for the league have expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

The league had also struggled to respond to protests against racial injustice led by the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem beginning in 2016.

After the N.F.L. neither defended nor stopped the protests immediately, Trump turned the league into a political punching bag, calling on owners, some of whom heavily supported him politically, to fire players who demonstrated during the playing of the national anthem in 2017. Trump reiterated his stance that players should stand during “The Star Spangled Banner” last month, giving new fuel to a divisive debate that has pitted fans against players — and players against team owners.

Kaepernick last played in the 2016 season, and when he went unsigned in 2017, he accused the owners of colluding to keep him out of the league because of his political beliefs. After numerous entertainers said they would not perform at N.F.L. events in solidarity with Kaepernick, the league paid the quarterback and his former teammate, Eric Reid, several millions of dollars to settle their case.

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