Jeffri Chadiha Harry Edwards The Conversation

Athlete activism and the NFL anthem protests in particular have received lots of looks from sports media, but the latest outlet to produce an in-depth documentary on the subject is a surprising one: NFL Network. “The Conversation”, which premiered Sunday night as part of the network’s NFL 360 series (and which will re-air Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern), is an excellent hour-long examination of those protests from all sides. The documentary involves NFLN’s Jeffri Chadiha travelling the country and talking to players who participated, fans, businessmen and police officers upset with them, military members, a law professor, a famed sociologist, and more, and it’s not dissimilar to something you’d find on HBO’s Real Sports or ESPN’s Outside The Lines or E:60. It’s definitely interesting to see a league network doing that, especially on such a controversial topic.

This is a remarkable piece for NFL Network to do because it’s not just controversial (some have said they boycotted or watched less NFL games thanks to the protests, while others have taken strong exception to criticism of the protests), it’s also uncomfortable. This documentary includes graphic video of several police shootings, walks through the locations where some of those shootings occurred, and a number of opinionated comments guaranteed to induce cringes from those strongly on one side or the other of this issue. It’s not a feel-good piece, and it’s not something really promoting the NFL or its players.

Yes, many of the players involved are given screen time to talk about why they’re protesting and what they’re hoping to change, as are some of those who agree with them (such as famed sociologist and activist Dr. Harry Edwards), but so are some of their harshest critics, including the Colorado memorabilia store owner who cancelled a planned Brandon Marshall signing after his protest and put up a wall of photos of military members who suffered or died in the line of duty, implying that the protesting players were disrespecting them. Chadiha also talks in depth with a retired police officer whose letter criticizing the protesters went viral, discussing what he went through after a shooting incident. So this is very much not a “these NFL players are right” piece; it’s a piece that presents all sides of the discussion. In fact, Edwards’ commentary near the end about how these players started a nationwide conversation in a way no one else really had sums it the piece well:

Chadiha deserves a lot of praise for his role in the documentary. There are segments where he gives his own views on how it feels to be black in America and his own thoughts on the protests, but they’re short and meaningful, and the majority of the documentary is him asking others insightful questions and letting them talk (even when they’re stating views contrary to his). That helps this come off not as just a one-man editorial, but as an in-depth exploration of a controversial topic from all sides, and one that can be appreciated by people on either side. The reporting here is excellent too, as he tracked down very interesting people and got them to open up. One notable segment sees him go to the scene of the gunfight the retired officer was involved in, and the officer describes exactly what happened and what he was feeling and thinking. Another one sees him go to the public-transit station in Oakland where Oscar Grant was shot by a police officer in 2009 with Grant’s uncle, who passionately describes what happened to him. Throughout all of this, Chadiha does a great job of serving as the viewers’ window into the story without getting in the way of it.

Overall, this is an unexpected documentary to see from NFL Network, and it’s not one that’s a light, easy, or comfortable watch. However, it’s excellent to see a league network venturing into these risky waters, and doing so in an impressive way. This is a good piece of journalism by the NFL’s original content group, and it’s one well worth watching for those with any interest in the issue of NFL protests and police shootings. It’s not necessarily going to change minds one way or the other, but it does a strong job of examining the conversation started by these protests and the implications of it.

The NFL 360 “The Conversation” episode re-airs at 9 p.m. Eastern Monday night.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.