By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A movement must be pretty strong in order to get Roger Goodell to admit he’s done something wrong. The Black Lives Matter movement has now done just that.
The commissioner of the NFL posted a video through choppy WiFi on Friday evening, stating unequivocally that he and the league now stand behind the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It has been a difficult time for our country, in particular black people in our country,” Goodell said before offering condolences to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people.”
Goodell then went so far as to admit that the NFL was wrong when it actively tried to drown out the protests that have taken place on the field, most notably in 2016 and 2017.
“We, the the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell admitted. “We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”
Of course, Goodell did not mention Colin Kaepernick by name, but such an admission is still a major development for a league that sought to silence rather than amplify the message that was sent by the former 49ers quarterback in 2016.
When Kaepernick’s protest began in the summer of 2016, the league was blindsided and struggled to respond, especially as the movement grew among a select few NFL players. The following year, the practice of players taking a knee had largely died down. That was until President Donald Trump expressed a desire for owners to respond to any player kneeling during the anthem by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”
The following Sunday, hundreds of NFL players took a knee during the national anthem as a show of defiance against the president. The NFL once again had no plan in place to handle the situation, fearing backlash from fans and — more importantly — sponsors. Teams worked out varied plans after that first week, with some teams kneeling before the anthem, and other teams locking arms in a show of solidarity.
The following offseason, Goodell and the NFL instituted a new policy that required all players on the field to stand during the anthem. Players who wanted to protest racial inequality and police brutality could do so away from the public eye, which of course eliminated the entire point of the protest.
If anyone took a knee or sat during the anthem, the team would face fines from the NFL. Owners passed that movement unanimously.
“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” Goodell said in May of 2018. “We want people to stand — that’s all personnel — and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe.”
Fast-forward two years later, and things have clearly changed.
Naturally, given Goodell’s and the NFL’s reluctance to listen to players in the past, and given the wiping out of Kaepernick from the league at the age of 29, it’s extremely difficult to take Goodell at face value here in June of 2020.
And frankly, until the league and Goodell mention Kaepernick by name and addresses how swiftly he disappeared from a league that has since employed countless unworthy quarterbacks, messages like Goodell’s will remain highly and rightly suspicious.
Alas, the commissioner is at least saying the right thing and appears intent on following through.
“I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country,” Goodell said Friday. “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. And I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family.”
We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. 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. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv
— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020
The commissioner was no doubt compelled by two events this week. First, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Wednesday that he can’t support “anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” That comment sparked immediate backlash around the NFL, leading Brees to issue not one but two separate apologies on Thursday.
Despite Kaepernick and every other protester explaining clearly that the protests were not directed at the flag or the military but instead were aimed at drawing attention to the hope of improving the lives of black people in America, comments like Brees’ were the norm from 2016 and through the past several years. Such commentary was common and didn’t draw much — if any — negative attention.
While support for Brees’ sentiment surely still exists — the president sent two tweets on Friday supporting Brees’ initial statement while expressing disappointment that the quarterback apologized — things have clearly changed.
When Americans watched a police officer kneel on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes on a street in Minneapolis, the outrage around the country was immediate and forceful. Protests have taken place on the streets of most major cities, and as far as the NFL is concerned, teams issued statements supporting players and racial equality (while still avoiding the issue of police brutality by name).
With all of that taking place, a number of NFL stars — including Super Bowl-winning quarterback Patrick Mahomes — released a video on Thursday demanding the NFL to support their cause and speak out against racism.
— The Gilly Lock (@BumpNrunGilm0re) June 5, 2020
Less than 24 hours later, Goodell responded by offering his full support.
How the NFL handles potential protests in the fall remains a question, but if Goodell’s comments are to be taken at face value, the league at least seems interested in working with the players rather than threatening them with fines if they exercise their right to speak their mind.
Again, given the history, the sincerity of the league must be questioned. Likewise, how the league navigates the coming days, weeks and months will require levels of creativity and leadership not often associated with Goodell.
But those are secondary issues to the matter of the league finally lending an ear and vowing to support players in their efforts to improve the country. The NFL absolutely had to take a significant step forward, and Goodell’s brief video at least represented some progress for a league that previously had stubbornly refused to be pushed an inch.