Flags are blowing in the direction of social change, so the money-driven NFL appears to be following

The NFL rarely does a damn thing unless it can profit off of it.

This is a league, after all, that once charged the Department of Defense $5 million to stage patriotic tributes to soldiers during timeouts. And while no one is questioning that it was opposed to breast cancer when it made the players add pink to their uniforms, the benefits of marketing the sport to women was lost on no one.

You have to appreciate the hustle. These team owners didn’t get that rich by accident.

So on Friday afternoon, when Roger Goodell, commissioner of a league that is unapologetically about cutthroats and bottom lines, actually released an apology video for not supporting the players, including during past protests that adversely affected revenue, it was no normal corporate statement.

“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,” Goodell said. “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.”

Does the league actually mean this? Goodell is the franchise owners’ mouthpiece but he’s still just a mouthpiece. Jerry Jones wasn’t in that video. Robert Kraft wasn’t in that video.

If the NFL is serious, however, then this wasn’t just a response to a group of players who sought those exact words and it wasn’t just a rebuttal to Donald Trump, who has already returned to bashing protests during the pregame anthem.

If this is real, then it’s a clear sign that the NFL believes public sentiment on the issue of anthem protests specifically and social justice in general has dramatically shifted. This isn’t the NFL leading. The NFL never leads. This is the NFL following where it believes the money will be, if not immediately, then over the next couple of decades.

Flags, American or otherwise, tend to show which way the wind is blowing.

The arc of public sentiment among NFL players and fans is bending toward social justice. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The arc of public sentiment among NFL players and fans is bending toward social justice. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the anthem, the league was caught flat-footed. It never could come up with a viable response.

Undoubtedly plenty of team owners agreed with Trump when he started wailing on the protesting players (“son of a bitch!”) and the compliant league (“weak!”) as a wedge-issue applause-line. (None of the team owners signed Kaepernick once he parted from San Francisco following the 2016 season, after all.)

They may have agreed with Trump, but they hated his ability to mess with their money.

And mess he did. TV ratings fell. Boos rained down on the sideline. Pro football was a political piñata. By 2017, some fans hated them for not employing Kap, others for ever employing him in the first place.

The NFL tried to play to both sides, funding (and even participating in) admirable and granular initiatives with the Players Coalition, such as bail reform and juvenile sentencing standards. It also doubled down on military tributes (for free this time) and Americana.

By trying to straddle the middle of the road, the NFL found itself getting hit coming and going once this flared up again.

That was then. Now feels different. Oh, there remains plenty of opposition to anthem protests and plenty of support for Trump. Even down in the polls, he’s got 40-something percent of the country on his side. A lot of them are NFL customers.

Those who support the protests, however, are aggressively countering the narrative that they are anti-flag or anti-military. The flag, after all, represents all Americans, not just the troops. And part of what has always made America great is the ability to peacefully protest.

You can be — and should be — pro-military and still see the need for social justice.

“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,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees wrote to Trump on Friday.

Brees started the week opposed to anthem protests, but flipped after much backlash and dialogue. By Friday he was on social media trying to explain the issue to Trump.

“We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities,” Brees wrote.

How many more Americans are there like Brees, seeing the issue from a new perspective after a Minneapolis police officer was charged with murdering African American George Floyd by literally leaning on his neck?

The NFL seems to think that number is the majority, or at least headed that way. Or maybe more specifically, that number includes people the NFL believes will be its most valued customers going forward.

Roger Goodell's video Friday night was a strong hint at how the NFL is reacting to protests and calls for social change this time around. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Roger Goodell's video Friday night was a strong hint at how the NFL is reacting to protests and calls for social change this time around. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Societies change. Generations fade. History is going to find Kapernick as a hero, no matter how much his current critics might not believe it. It’s how these things work. At the time of his death in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was, according to Gallup polling, the most hated man in the country, with two-thirds of Americans viewing him unfavorably. Fifteen years later he had a national holiday named after him. These days, his approval is over 95 percent.

King and Kaepernick are different people, in different times dealing with different circumstances. But this is how it goes. Always. Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown. Tommie Smith and John Carlos. And so on.

The NFL may serve as proof it’s coming sooner than anyone expected. This league market tests everything. Focus groups everything. Polls everything. This is not an operation that makes emotional decisions.

Unless Goodell went rogue on Friday, the NFL is siding with its players and those inclined to protest because it knows it’ll be good for business.

In the short term? Probably not.

If Trump makes a big deal of this, as you might expect he will, then there will be enough football fans triggered by the sight of a kneeling player to go cancel culture on the NFL. Ratings will dip. Some tickets will be returned (which will be less noticeable, of course, during a pandemic with limited capacity at stadiums). Some will swear off football and actually stick with it.

That is their right.

The NFL, though, appears to be saying that the future is here and the money is with the future.

Because while Goodell said a lot on Friday, with the NFL, it’s the money that always talks.

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