ATLANTA (Reuters) – As football fans flood Atlanta for Sunday’s Super Bowl, not everyone is thrilled that a city once a pillar of the Civil Rights movement is playing host, given the NFL’s record on race.

Jan 30, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a press conference in advance of Super Bowl LIII at Georgia World Congress Center. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell highlighted Atlanta’s history of racial activism in comments to reporters this week and said the National Football League, where 70 percent of players are African American, was devoted to “honoring that legacy.”

But he also denied an allegation by former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick that NFL owners have conspired to keep him off the field since his kneeling protest against racial inequality in 2016 drew the ire of some fans and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kaepernick has not been able to find work in the league since then. Goodell said any team which thought Kaepernick could help them win would hire the quarterback, who led the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl.

“We know that blackballs exist and we believe that this is one of them,” Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta NAACP, told Reuters at a social justice rally on Saturday in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.

“For the longest time the NFL would not hire any black quarterbacks so this is just a continuation of that,” he said. “Let’s be real about it…It’s just punishment again for trying to stand up as a person of color.”

The NFL did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Despite an NFL rule requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open coaching positions, only one person of color is expected to fill one of the eight head-coaching vacancies during the next hiring cycle, according to ESPN’s The Undefeated web site.

That is a failure by the NFL to seek out minority coaches, said Curtis Carmichael, an NAACP volunteer.

He said there are talented coaches even at the high school level in minority communities who never get the opportunity to develop into NFL head coaches.

“You have to actually be collaborating with these communities,” he said.

Tanya Washington, an Atlanta law professor and activist, said the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. should focus on making life better for its poor and minority citizens, instead of catering to wealthy out-of-town visitors.

The game on Sunday between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams represented “a distortion of priorities,” she told Reuters at the rally.

“You don’t have a big expensive party when you can’t afford to house your citizens,” she said of Atlanta, which has about 2,700 homeless people, according to local advocacy groups.

“Our civic identity is civil rights and being an inclusive community and this is how we act?” she said. “It happens everywhere but it hits a different tone in Atlanta than it would somewhere else that doesn’t have that legacy.”

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Alistair Bell

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