It is a seminal moment in American history, with the twin crises of a global pandemic and nationwide outrage over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody convulsing the streets with protests, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960’s. What’s happened in the NFL over the past several days is therefore just a small slice of the bigger picture, given that more than 100,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19 and the hundreds of protest marches, some of them violent, have dominated the country’s attention.
Yet it is nevertheless impossible to minimize the significance of the events within the league itself, and how the fallout may reverberate long into the future.
Start with Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Wednesday decrying anyone who would not stand for the national anthem because he believed it was a sign of disrespect toward the military. And then, a day later, his stunning reversal in the face of intense criticism, much of it from his own teammates, as he apologized in an Instagram post. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities,” he said.
But that was just the beginning of one of the most consequential weeks in NFL history, without even a game having been played.
On Friday evening, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — responding a day after an emotional video posted to social media in which many of the league’s African American star players repeated the names of black men and woman slain in recent years, including Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner — publicly apologized for the league’s slow reaction to protests that started in 2016 with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem.
“We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier,” Goodell said in a taped statement. “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.” He added that the NFL will “encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” an indication that the NFL may accept players kneeling during the national anthem despite the intense outcry from many fans that put a significant dent into the league’s financial well-being.
It was the right message from Goodell, even if it came nearly four years too late. He had previously tried to walk a tightrope after the initial controversy flared with Kaepernick’s kneeling, attempting to balance the need to acknowledge that the subject of the quarterback’s protest had merit, while at the same time have the league’s business interests in mind by not drawing so much attention that the bottom line would be impacted. In the end, Goodell satisfied no one, especially after the league voted in May 2018 to prohibit players from demonstrating during the anthem. That vote was eventually abandoned after fierce criticism from the players. Jets CEO Christopher Johnson was the only owner to speak out against the move at the time, telling Newsday he would not stand in the way of his players taking a knee if they felt it necessary.
President Donald Trump, a fierce critic of Kaepernick who once urged NFL owners to “get that son of a [expletive] off the field” in reference to players who knelt for the anthem, expressed frustration in a tweet Thursday that Brees had changed his views about players protesting racial injustice: “I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag … There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!”
In a stunning response Friday night, Brees directly addressed the president and said he stood by his apology.
“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 wrote on Instagram. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
It was a remarkable sequence of events that signaled the league will no longer tread gingerly around the topic of racial injustice and other social initiatives supported by the players, many of whom have joined with teams to promote their causes. It is difficult to recall a single instance in which Goodell apologized for being wrong on anything; in fact, much of his stewardship has featured him doubling down in the face of criticism, especially in the controversial cases involving league discipline against Bill Belichick for Spygate, Tom Brady for Deflategate and the Saints for Bountygate.
This time, he was unambiguous in his mea culpa.
“We, the National Football League condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodell said. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country.”
No, Goodell did not mention Kaepernick by name in his apology, and for that he deserves to be criticized. It also didn’t go unnoticed that the players didn’t mention Kaepernick by name in their video.But in terms of the overall message, Goodell expressed the kind of moral outrage that his players were seeking. Goodell must now continue the work that he and team owners have begun alongside the Players Coalition for his message to truly resonate, but the line he drew in the sand Friday suggests those efforts will indeed continue.
This time, Goodell went all- in, choosing to back his players, more than 70 percent of whom are African American, at a time when it is simply impossible to ignore the indignation being shown across the country after Floyd’s senseless death.
Yet he does so knowing he risks the ire of many fans who don’t believe that a football game is an appropriate place to voice concerns about life outside the game itself. The league succeeded in tamping down the controversy over the protests during the national anthem by reaching out to the Players Coalition; with only a few exceptions, players stood for the anthem the last two seasons.
Given the inflamed emotions since Floyd’s death on May 25, it is impossible to believe there won’t be further demonstrations from the players. Only this time, Goodell appears ready to countenance those protests. For those who believe sports and politics shouldn’t mix, there is simply no turning back. Especially with the lead executive of the most popular sport in the country now adding his voice – loud and clear and unequivocal – to the debate.
The league is already challenged to resume operations in the face of a pandemic. Add in the impending protests from the players, and this will be one of the most controversial, contentious and tumultuous seasons the NFL has ever experienced.
This time, Goodell will be on the right side of history.