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Late Friday, amid the ongoing nationwide unrest following the killing of George Floyd, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video in which he apologized for how the NFL had failed to support players’ protests over racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem. “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People,” Goodell said. “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”
Goodell also said that, “Without black players, there would be no National Football League and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.”
But the commissioner did not apologize to blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 started a movement when he began sitting, then kneeling, during the national anthem in peaceful protest against police brutality. In 2018, in response to declining ratings for NFL games after President Trump had repeatedly attacked Kaepernick and other players who protested, the league announced a new policy that required players to stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room while it was playing.
Goodell did not mention Kaepernick at all on Friday, but said he would reach out to NFL players who have “raised their voices.”
The commissioner’s surprising and long overdue about-face did not happen organically. It was forced by a powerful video, shared Thursday night on social media, in which New Orleans Saints star Michael Thomas and numerous other black players called out the league, called attention to the killing of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other African-Americans killed by police — and demanded the league stand behind them. “What if I was George Floyd?” many of the players asked, insisting that they will “not be silenced” anymore.
Twenty-four hours later, with apparently little input from team owners, Goodell did what the players told him to do, in some cases saying verbatim what they had demanded he say. They published a “message on behalf of the NFL” and forced the NFL to literally repeat what they said.
The players’ video, per multiple reports, was organized by Thomas and a rogue NFL social-media employee who was upset over the league’s stance and reached out to Thomas. The video, which has been viewed millions of times, led to an emotional Zoomed town hall between Goodell and NFL employees on Friday, during which NFL staffers reportedly shared their anguish over the nationwide unrest and the league’s failures — with Kaepernick’s name coming up multiple times. An employee told Yahoo Sports that, “People cried. People were upset. People had prepared statements. People revealed that they hadn’t slept in days over this. People asked very direct questions.”
The players’ video, the NFL employees’ outrage, and Goodell’s subsequent reversal also followed a new NFL controversy over the protests this week. On Wednesday, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is white, told a reporter that he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States,” in regards to the inevitability, following the widespread outrage over Floyd’s death, that many more players would protest during the anthem whenever this year’s NFL season begins. Brees apologized a day later following widespread backlash from other players and fans, admitting his “comments were insensitive and completely missed the mark.” Shortly before Goodell’s video came out, President Trump criticized Brees on Twitter for apologizing, and Brees later responded by insisting the protests were not about the flag.
“Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been,” Brees said in an Instagram post directly addressing Trump on Friday. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
According to the Washington Post, another reason Goodell may have been willing to change his tune is because he and others within the NFL no longer fear Trump and his supporters as much as they once did:
The reaction of some powerful figures in the league remains unknown. Some insiders wonder how Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a member of the league’s old guard who has said his players must stand for the anthem, would respond. The Cowboys did not respond Saturday to a request for comment.
The league and owners realize there could be opposition from fans with views similar to Trump’s, according to the person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings …
One Goodell associate said he was “amazed” by the video. He added: “Trump is in a different place now. I don’t think the NFL is afraid of taking him on this time.”
Meanwhile, many have criticized Goodell for taking years to come around, needing to come around in the first place, and for still failing to address Kaepernick, who hasn’t played in three seasons as a result of his blacklisting.
As The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill pointed out earlier this week:
The recent wave of protests and acts of rebellion gives Americans yet another chance to listen to black people without them having to die to prove a point. Kaepernick’s gesture of taking a knee is more powerful now than it was back in 2016. News coverage—not to mention numerous photos and videos on the internet—shows protesters kneeling in the streets because it’s come to universally symbolize nonviolent resistance. Had the NFL continued to support Kaepernick all along, the league would be remembered in this moment as a true beacon of progress, rather than a bunch of shameless hypocrites.
Whether the injustice done by Goodell and the NFL to Kaepernick is substantively redressed, or, at the very least, he is able to play in the upcoming season — now that the league has been forced to get behind the movement he started — remains to be seen.