Super Bowl halftime show sparks more conversations about the NFL’s record on race

The Super Bowl was a close and compelling game on Sunday, and as always there was a lot of attention around the halftime show. This year's show was led by hip-hop legends Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent, and comes as the NFL's record on race is under scrutiny. Wesley Morris, New York Times Pulitzer-Prize winning culture critic, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Super Bowl was a close and compelling game last night, with the Los Angeles Rams beating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20.

    But, as always, there was also a lot of attention around the halftime show. That was again the case this year, with the program centered on hip-hop legends, coming at a time when the NFL's record on race remains under scrutiny.

    Amna Nawaz looks at the message, the optics and contradictions of that show, as part of our Race Matters series.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, those icons were Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar, with a special guest appearance from 50 Cent.

    Their performance put race, justice and the NFL's handling of those issues center stage.

    To discuss all that, I'm joined by New York Times culture critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Morris.

    Wesley, welcome back welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.

    So, among the many reactions to the halftime show I saw, some people said it was like a battle between enthusiasm and cynicism, that you could all of these hip-hop greats assembled in a fantastic show, objectively, a really good show. At the same time there, the stage they're on is hosted by the NFL, which is facing years of allegations of racism, a lawsuit from a former coach, a Black man, who alleges he was discriminated against.

    I'm curious which side you fell on as you watched it. Were you enthusiastic or cynical?

  • Wesley Morris, The New York Times:

    You know, the thing about the halftime show, every single year, at least, at least since 2004 — I believe that's the Justin Timberlake year — the halftime show has become this crucible of not only what the NFL is about, but what this country stands for when it comes to the treatment of women, the treatment of African Americans.

    This year, obviously, was a big deal for a lot of music fans and for music historians in some way, pop music historians, because hip-hop has been given its own show, instead of being an additive element to someone else's show or like part of a larger pop music-oriented spectacle.

    And so that raised a lot of questions about what responsibility these artists had to bring up the NFL's questionable racist hiring practices. It put a lot of pressure on these artists, in this case, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, and Snoop Dogg, who are all from South Los Angeles.

    And in the one sense, these are artists playing their hometown, right? Inglewood is not terribly far from where they grew up. And so there is this sort of sweetness to what they're being asked to do. But it's — all of these artists in some ways intersect with the American political moment, especially Kendrick Lamar.

    And so they all knew what they were dealing with. And so, in that sense, I'm for a good halftime show, but I'm also for the reality that the ground upon which these shows take place has got a lot of land mines on it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, so, how do you reconcile the two? This is the conversation, right? This is the heart of the question.

  • Wesley Morris:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Because you got to go back in time, right?

    2016 is when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in protest of, yes, racial injustice, but also specifically police brutality against Black people. He goes as a free agent, never plays a day again in the NFL. And now you have the headliner of the halftime show, Dr. Dre, whose lyrics is still not loving the police. Eminem takes a knee during the performance.

    So it all stood out to people as saying, OK, protests are OK in the NFL, but not if you're one of the players.

  • Wesley Morris:

    I hear the complaints that people have about, like, the discrepancy between what can happen in a halftime show and what can happen on the field.

    I think the NFL — the idea that you and I are having this conversation, Amna, and the NFL isn't really answering for much of anything, they get to, like, have people like us have these conversations about what it is or is not doing.

    And I think the interesting thing and the important thing about this Brian Flores suit against the league is that it is going to force the league to explain why it's not following its own guidelines when it comes to hiring, the racism in the league and the sexism in the league.

    I think it's up to the criminal justice system. I think it's up to players to continue to speak out against things happening in the league.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, I will put to you as well, I think, what defenders of the NFL will say, that it's not just about the halftime show, right?

  • Wesley Morris:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    That the longstanding criticism when you're talking about a league that is — 70 percent of the players are Black. Only one, I believe, coach right now is a Black man, and…

  • Wesley Morris:

    Mike Tomlin. Mike Tomlin, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, of the Steelers, right?

    So they will point to the entire Super Bowl as this cultural moment, where they had "End Racism" messages in the end zones, and Mickey Guyton saying "The Star-Spangled Banner," and Mary Mary performed "Lift Every Voice," known as the Black national anthem, right? And a lot of folks will look at that and say, it is performative. You need to do better.

    Is that criticism fair?

  • Wesley Morris:

    Absolutely yes.

    I do think though, that the criticism kind of — I don't know. It's an ongoing and during criticism. It's as old as American popular entertainment in some ways.

    But I think the real question that the league has to answer for — because Black people don't have to answer for anything in this situation, as far as I'm concerned. I think the league has to answer why it can be mostly Black players, and the people doing the work on the field can be mostly Black, but yet that can't be translated.

    You're telling me that nobody is good enough to run strategy on these teams, that no Black person, anyway, is good enough to run strategy on these teams? I just — I don't believe that. And if the league believes that, it should say that, instead of doing the smoke and mirrors thing with the — having people — we know exactly what happened to Brian Flores, being called into an interview for a job that had already been filled by someone else.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Wesley Morris, culture critic of The New York Times, joining us tonight.

    Wesley, thanks so much. Always good to see you.

  • Wesley Morris:

    Thanks for having me, Amna. It was a pleasure to be here.

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