When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted in an oddly low-res video on Friday evening that the league was wrong for “not listening to NFL players earlier” — and then actually uttered the phrase “Black Lives Matter” — it was widely seen as a cynical gesture from a company hack who finally acquiesced to public pressure, rather than a heartfelt gesture of genuine remorse. (Goodell not only didn’t apologize to Colin Kaepernick for his owners banning him from the league, he didn’t even mention his name.) Slate’s Joel Anderson saw Goodell’s pandering for what it was, writing, “Goodell’s empty gestures tell us nothing about what the NFL thinks of black lives. They tell us, instead, what the NFL thinks of white fans.” When Roger Goodell inevitably kneels along with his league’s players, it’ll carry about as much sincerity and emotional meaning as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s infamous shit-eating grin when he did it in 2017. As Tom Ley of the late Deadspin observed at the time, the NFL loves nothing more than a hollow branding opportunity. Goodell’s “admission” was yet another one.
What happened next should not have been surprising. On Sunday night, President Trump, tweeting through it as always, attempted to bust out one of his greatest hits.
If you’ll remember, back when the NFL-kneeling story line began, Trump muscled his way into the conversation by claiming that owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now” when players took a knee, and encouraging fans to leave the stadium when it happened. (A month later, his vice-president would do just that, at considerable taxpayer expense.) Goodell called Trump’s comments “divisive,” but ignored players’ requests that he support a racial equality program. Ultimately, Goodell caved to Trump and his supporters by banning kneeling altogether during the national anthem; nevertheless, Trump was back at it a year later, just to make sure Goodell remembered who held the leash. That Goodell acceded so quickly and totally to Trump three years ago is one of the reasons his statement on Friday felt so empty; nobody believes his platitudes anymore, nor should they.
But — and I say this knowing that Lucy will be just as happy to pull the football away this time, just like always — there is reason to think that this time will be different. That’s partly because Goodell and the NFL owners have witnessed the same shift in power and influence over the last fortnight that you and I can. And it’s partly because so much of the frustration with the NFL’s stance on Black Lives Matter has come from inside Goodell’s organization; a terrific Athletic piece details how a video made by NFL players, and produced internally by a “rogue” employee, forced Goodell’s hand. I wonder, though, if the bigger reason for Goodell’s new posture is even simpler: Goodell isn’t particularly scared of Trump anymore. There was a time when Goodell had to bob and weave along with every presidential broadside, when he had to pattern league policy around Trump’s Twitter mood swings. But the Trump of 2017 — or even of a few months ago — was a much more powerful Trump than the one we have before us now.
You could attach Trump’s diminishment in influence to the widespread condemnation and disgust with his gassing of protesters for a particularly lame-brained photo-op stunt last Monday. You could say it’s because of his lagging poll numbers generally, or the fact that Trump is looking more and more like a scared man hiding inside a black-fence-fortified prison of his own making. But one of the undeniable takeaways from the last week is that Trump looks weaker than he has at any time during his presidency. (We have reached the point of the cycle when aides are anonymously complaining that his wife is undermining him.) And when you are weak, no matter how much you might bluster and stomp your feet, people don’t fear you like they once did. Even someone as skittish as Goodell.
When Trump’s national anthem tweets were front-page news, the NFL owners and a few player representatives held a secret meeting, which the Times obtained audio of. What’s telling reading that story today is how terrified the league was of Trump: Everyone in that meeting talks about the man like they were on the wrong side of a hostage negotiation. It seems so silly now. It’s not as if there’s much evidence that Trump’s threats to the NFL ever held a lot of power in the first place. It’s true that the NFL’s two lowest-rated recent years for television — forever the barometer for the league — were in fact when Trump was going after them the most. But many, many, many studies showed that the reasons for that had nothing to do with Trump or his supporters. The ratings only declined slightly anyway, and they’ve rocketed up the last two years, again, for reasons that have nothing to do with Trump or politics.
If there’s a lesson the NFL earned from the entire debacle, it’s that Trump didn’t have the power back then that they feared he did … and that he definitely doesn’t have it now. Look at the week Drew Brees just had. On Wednesday, he told Yahoo Finance he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag.” There has probably never been a time in NFL history, up until now, when expressing that opinion would have constituted a problem for Brees. But on Thursday, after an overwhelming uproar (including among his own teammates), Brees apologized, and then apologized again. That led Trump to tweet that he was a “big fan” of Brees but that he should have never said sorry, and that “OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high.” But Brees, smartly, realized that Trump was nothing to be scared of. He went on Instagram and addressed the president directly: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.” His statement was widely lauded; his teammate Michael Thomas, one of the most powerful voices in the NFL (and one of the orchestrators of the video that helped move Goodell in the first place), tweeted out “MY QB” with a flex emoji in response to it. Brees stepped in it on Wednesday, but was mostly out of it by Friday. And it was actually Trump who handed him a lifeline.
That has to be a large part of the mindset of Goodell: While the safe thing three years ago might have been to capitulate to Trump, the safe thing now is to do the exact opposite. In 2017, you knew you had to deal with the president, one way or another, for the next three years. Now? Now you might be rid of him in a few months. And you’re aware — more aware than you were then — that his bark is a lot worse than his bite. This is the one trick he has, the Big Kneeling Threat. He’s beginning to look like an elderly coach trying to win in today’s NFL with the old T-formation playbook he used in the 1950s — in other words, like someone whose time has passed.
How is the league going to deal with Trump trying to turn this into a wedge issue once again? I think Goodell and the NFL are going to just ignore him. The players have shown the power they have in this situation, and their willingness to wield it. The fan base has shown it isn’t actually going to stop watching football because of Trump’s perpetual culture war. And the owners and the league itself haven’t lost a dime in the past because of Trump’s various attempts to mess with their business. You can’t help but wonder, for the rest of this summer and fall, if this strategy will become a bit of a modus operandi with Trump every time he tries to start some shit for his own purposes. Railing on Amazon because of the Washington Post? Yelling at some television network? Trying to put pressure on an individual reporter? The proper response, it’s becoming increasingly clear, is to either pretend he doesn’t exist — or maybe even to actively defy him. He’s not the Trump of three years ago. The movement and the people are more powerful than he is, and they always were. Roger Goodell knows that now. The NFL knows that now. Maybe, now, we all do.