The Signpost ran a column under the headline “National Felons League: The best team of criminals since ‘The Longest Yard'” on Sept. 28, intended to assemble a hypothetical all-star team of NFL players that drew attention to how many top-tier athletes had lengthy criminal records, a worthwhile examination of the culture surrounding key players in the NFL.
Unfortunately, in effect, the column (and the associated cover image in particular) unintentionally reinforced stereotypes concerning people of color and aggravated tensions surrounding the current political stance taken by many NFL players, coaches and team owners exercising their right to freedom of speech by peacefully protesting the national anthem.
The piece was pitched and approved — as a column (which, for those unfamiliar with the distinction, is deliberately opinionated) — a month before teams began taking a knee on the field in dissent of the treatment of black men and women in America — an act that embodies the First Amendment, the foundation upon which news outlets are built, a tenet the staff at The Signpost holds true.
While the authors’ and graphic artists’ intentions were good, the piece’s impact bore the potential for harm, so in the interest of adherence to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, primarily that which demands the minimization of harm, the piece has been redacted online and will be collected from news stands for disposal on Oct. 2.
In the interest of clarifying the discourse surrounding this topic, there is some context worth mentioning, namely the construct of the ‘National Felons League.’
The pun on the NFL acronym is part of a longstanding dialogue regarding the league and criminal activity therein: Bleacher Report, The Deseret News, The Journal of Criminal Justice and The Sportster have all published articles using the same terms over the past 10 years. It wasn’t until this week’s athlete protests that the moniker was adopted into the rhetoric of the alt-right. The timing of Cydnee Green and Harrison Epstein’s column going to print was regrettable.
None of this is to say that the editorial team at The Signpost is without fault — in fact, none are more so at fault than myself. The image of three black men above the word ‘felon’ went by four pairs of white editorial eyes without criticism, and at the end of production, I personally signed off on the proofs.
I readily admit my cultural blind spots and invite those who took offense to the column or the associated cover art to participate in dialogue with The Signpost focused on illuminating the blind spots in our community.
The potential for harm this column possessed rests on me. The backlash to the column has served as a lesson to our editorial team and staff of student-journalists in navigating culturally-volatile content sensitively.
Moving forward, our promise is that our staff will be more mindful of the impact of our work and of the cultural contexts in which they’re read.