NFL·Opinion

NBC reporter's decision to quit lucrative gig to fight critical race theory says much about racism in America

Michele Tafoya quit a high-profile sports broadcast job at NBC to join a movement that aims to stop educators from teaching students that racism shapes America's past and present. You could describe it as anti anti-racism, writes Morgan Campbell.

Former sideline reporter says teaching 'skin colour matters' breaks her heart

NBC's Sunday Night Football sideline reporter Michele Tafoya reports during a game in 2021. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Michele Tafoya, a longtime fixture as a sideline reporter on NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcasts, announced last week she had quit that job to, among other duties, join the fight against critical race theory, which the U.S. political right claims is the problem, not the actual racism.

To be clear, Tafoya, a five-time Sports Emmy award winner, isn't reinventing herself as an anti-racism educator. She's joining a movement that aims to stop educators from teaching students that racism shapes America's past and present. You could describe it as anti anti-racism.

Tafoya's announcement triggered a mix of bewilderment and ridicule from some sports fans, which is expected. If I snagged one of the highest-profile, highest-paid positions in my industry, and then quit so I could invest my time in pressuring schools to stop teaching Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation, you guys would have a right to question a lot about me. 

Like my priorities.

Or my character.

My ability to distinguish between fighting a fire and letting it burn.

Instead, let's choose empathy.

Mike McDaniel, recently hired as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, said he identifies as bi-racial. (Associated Press)

Post-racial illusion

Imagine yourself in Tafoya's shoes, as someone who now claims to organize her life around the principle that the world is colour blind, and then trying to cover the National Football League. How do you react when you realize that 70 per cent of the league's players are Black, but no team owners are? That the current roster of head coaches includes two Black people, and a third who, under cross-examination, identifies as bi-racial? That Black and white players — even those who grew up near each other — speak the same language with different accents

Those details could add up to shatter the fantasy that skin colour doesn't matter, and could certainly force somebody in Tafoya's position to make a choice. Tafoya, surrounded by reality, chose to stake her career on a post-racial illusion. It takes a sort of courage to watch evidence pile up on the other side of your opinion and then, in such a public way, declare that the evidence is out of line. So credit Tafoya for betting on her beliefs.

She has also reportedly joined the campaign of Kendall Qualls, an African-American Republican running for governor of Minnesota.

But empathy has limits, and another phrase describing Tafoya's commitment to principle is "willful ignorance." 

Doesn't want her kids taught CRT

Days after leaving NBC, Tafoya appeared on Tucker Carlson's show to discuss how the real evil isn't racism, but teaching kids about it.

"It breaks my heart that my kids are being taught that skin colour matters," she told Carlson, who, according to the Anti-Defamation League, traffics in white supremacist conspiracy theories

Viewing recent NFL history through Tafoya's no-coloured glasses, we can explain away several recent controversies that seem racial.

Brian Flores' class-action suit against the league alleging its teams systematically deny opportunities to Black coaches? Just an overreaction from somebody bitter about getting fired. The problem with his skin is its thinness, not colour.

Jon Gruden losing his job as Las Vegas Raiders head coach after several of his racist and homophobic emails went public? Nothing but cancel culture run amok. Why shouldn't you be able to say a Black person's lips look like Michelin tires? Wokeness has gone too far. You can't even call a spade a sp-... never mind.

Former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, now a senior defensive assistant for the Steelers, filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL alleging racist hiring practices. He believes race contributed to Miami firing him in January. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

NFL only stopped 'race norming' last year

And what about the NFL's lawyers insisting that doctors assessing retired players for brain damage under the league's concussion settlement apply a handicap to Black players' scores? That practice, known as race norming, assumed that white players who scored poorly on cognitive tests were brain damaged because of football, and eligible for settlement money. But if Black players scored poorly, they weren't brain damaged, according to the race norming handicap. Just predisposed to poor brain function, and not owed any cash under the settlement.

The league only agreed to stop the practice last fall, after months of public pressure.

If Tafoya wanted to crusade against the idea that skin colour matters, she could start right here, fighting alongside Black retirees and the doctors who assessed them, who all wanted raw test scores, instead of a racially slanted handicap, to govern access to settlement money. The lawyers for a league Tafoya covered insisted on racial double standard. A journalist with her experience and audience and contacts could help make powerful people accountable, and ensure injured retirees of all colours get the payouts they deserve.

But no.

Tafoya's rebrand as a racial justice crusader involves taking on so-called critical race theory, three words that actors on the U.S. political right string together to attack the idea of teaching students about racism. So far, according to Chalkbeat, 36 of 50 states have adopted legislation to restrict education on "racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics."

It's quite a pivot for a reporter who covered a league with its own messy history with race. A "gentlemen's agreement" kept the NFL segregated from the mid 1930s until 1946, and the league's first Black player, Kenny Washington, once compared integrating the NFL to living in hell. This fall, Washington D.C.'s rebranded franchise will play their first season as the Commanders after two years as the "Football Team," and 87 more sporting a racial slur as a name and a racist caricature as a logo.

Still, Tafoya, a veteran observer of the NFL, insists the real problem with racism is that so many people insist it still exists.

When a recent appearance on The View led to Tafoya and Whoopi Goldberg debating racism, Goldberg said that white people need to "step up" and make skin colour irrelevant, presumably by helping end racism.

"But they've been doing that since the Civil War," Tafoya said.

We could point out that Black Codes, Jim Crow and the KKK all emerged after the Civil War. And to Canadians who think racism doesn't happen in our country, a full century passed between Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the closure of Ontario's last segregated school.

Most of the pro-sports barrier-breakers we rightly celebrate as heroes — Washington, Jackie Robinson, Willie O'Ree, Herb Trawick and more — were born in the 20th century. I don't have to tell you they lived after the Civil War ended. You guys know how calendars work. But apparently it bears emphasizing that this rich history unfolded decades after the date that Tafoya says a critical mass of white people launched an all-out attack against racism.

That Tafoya seems not to understand the timeline signals that she could use more education on the interplay between race and history. Instead, she's joining the people who say we need to study those subjects even less.

A strange position to take if you want to create a world where skin colour doesn't matter. Racism is still a fact. But it's the logical move for somebody as committed to post-racial fiction as Tafoya appears to be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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