In the NFL’s most feckless moments of ownership in the 2017 season — with players kneeling in protest and the league office struggling to deal with the albatross of Donald Trump — the presidential bully pulpit reigned supreme.
Whether it was stoking his base in rallies, engineering a vice presidential walkout during a game or sending cannon shots through social media, Trump became a master at demonstrating a formidable reality: He knew how to throw a punch that NFL team owners and executives were incapable of responding to.
On Friday, that may have changed.
Time will tell if the NFL’s actions can keep up with Roger Goodell’s words, but there is little arguing that the commissioner just put the league into a place it steadfastly avoided for much of the past three years. For the first time since a player-driven social justice movement gained steam in 2017, Goodell took a position that places the NFL directly at odds with one of Trump’s most crowd-pleasing platforms from the 2016 election. And Goodell did it only hours after Trump again railed against the kneeling protests that have long been a red meat issue for his political base.
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodell said in a video. “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. 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. We are listening. I am listening.”
That statement is the strongest one from Goodell to date. It’s also a direct response from Goodell to a video produced by a swath of NFL players, which ended by punctuating precisely what they wanted to hear from the league:
“This is what we, the players, would like to hear you state: We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
It’s worth noting that Goodell’s statement said nothing of kneeling. It said nothing of Colin Kaepernick. It didn’t make a commitment to again air the national anthem before games, something that was halted under pressure from the NFL to remove social justice protests from view. In fact, it didn’t detail what will specifically be different in the league’s stance moving forward or how 2020 will avoid falling back into the same quagmire of unchecked Trump barrages from 2016 or 2017.
But it did do two things that are notable.
First, it listened and complied with the wishes of players who bluntly stated what they wanted from the league in a statement, including an admission of fault for not listening to those who have peacefully protested in the past. That’s no small feat, particularly considering the league never came close to admitting a misstep in its handling of peaceful protests.
For that to come now is, at the very least, an instance of Goodell suggesting that he’s hearing exactly what players are saying to him, and that he’s willing to respond in the exact way they need in order to feel heard.
Granted, these are only words, but it’s a step of progress from a league that has never flatly uttered the pride-swallowing phrase of, “We were wrong.”
And second? In responding on video himself — rather than issuing a statement through league channels — Goodell put his face on the message. That’s significant, given that hatred toward social protests has largely been aimed at Kaepernick or other kneeling players since the 2016 season.
If anything, the league’s power brokers tried to collectively spread around the grief in 2017, when it staged a joint protest before the anthem early in the season. That was an ambiguous message by a mash of people that stunk of a hollow gesture.
Conversely, Goodell put his face on the message and then delivered it into the eyeballs of critics. One of whom just happens to be the president.
That latter point shouldn’t be taken lightly. It not only suggests a shift of the NFL’s message into a more aggressive defense of its players, but it also signals a willingness to fight back if and when Trump again bangs his political drum heading into the election this fall.
After all, this wasn’t something Goodell conveyed in a phone call. It wasn’t a message delivered in some closed-door meeting in a far-flung city under the cover of secrecy and privacy. It was out in the open, where all of the players and fans could see it. And it was on the social media platform that would eventually deliver it into Trump’s face — which is something the NFL avoided like the plague for years.
If you don’t believe that, stop for a moment and consider the confidential meeting that took place between a select group of team owners and players in October 2017. Called to address a standoff that was spiraling with the help of Trump’s fiery denouncements of the league in rallies and social media, a handful of franchise owners repeatedly made a singular point: Drawing the attention of the president to the protests was a league problem, and it needed to be remedied.
During that meeting, someone clandestinely taped the talks. Eventually, that tape leaked to The New York Times. And it said everything you needed to know about how important it was for the NFL to resolve protests to the point that they stopped taking place on the field.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly called the kneeling protests “the elephant in the room,” adding, “The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America. It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”
“We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else,” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie reportedly added. “We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula sounded downright worried, reportedly saying, “All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again. We need some kind of immediate plan because of what’s going on in society. All of us now, we need to put a Band-Aid on what’s going on in the country.”
Compare that to what Goodell is willing to say now about peaceful protests and ask yourself if it’s possible the conversation in the room may have changed. Given how Goodell just responded to his players — after Trump again denounced kneeling protests, no less — it sounds like it has.
It’s still June and we’re months away from an NFL season. Kaepernick is still on the outside looking in, the anthem is still something that can’t be televised and the swaths of angry fans who once shaped the NFL’s stance have yet to weigh in with their wallets.
Three months from now, we could be turning back the clock to 2017, with NFL team owners telling their players not to kneel and the president banging on the league like a piñata.
But for at least one day, the league listened to its players. And in the process, Goodell banged back against its biggest critics. In the process, he proved the league is capable of throwing a punch, too — if and when it wants to.
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