Roger Goodell is finally saying the right things, but will action follow?

Shalise Manza YoungYahoo Sports Columnist
Yahoo Sports

There’s not much that surprises me these days.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell looking into a camera and saying “We, the National Football League, condemn ... the systematic oppression of black people” in a video the league released Friday? That was surprising.

And that wasn’t the only surprising thing Goodell said.

He also said the league was wrong for not listening to players earlier and encourages all to speak out and peacefully protest, that black lives matter, and “without black players there would be no National Football League.”

Whew, child. 2020 continues to be a ride.

The video is in response to one posted by several prominent NFL players Thursday night, reportedly coordinated by New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas, in which Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu says, “How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry saying, “What will it take — for one of us to be murdered by police brutality?”

Reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson were among the 18 players in the video.

Goodell has been paying attention the past several days, not just to the nationwide protests and rallies, but to the fierce reaction Saints quarterback Drew Brees got after his Yahoo Finance interview earlier this week.

In a sport that works so hard to stress an all-for-one, everything’s great attitude to the outside world, seeing Brees’ own teammates publicly criticize him was a watershed moment. The players who began to realize the strength of their voice when Colin Kaepernick silently protested roared their disapproval with Brees continuing to conflate peaceful protest during the anthem with disrespect of the flag, and of his grandfathers who fought in World War II, as though there weren’t also black soldiers who fought in the same war — and came home to the same segregation and disrespect they faced before they put their lives on the line.

And while Brees showed contrition, twice, and some players, including Thomas, said they accepted his apology, that didn’t stop the All-Pro Saints receiver from pulling other players together for their video.

It’s heartening to know that the commissioner at least responded to the players’ words. It’s fair to wonder how much of Goodell’s Friday statement is his personal feelings and how many team owners share a similar sentiment.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video statement on Friday night condemning racism and saying 'Black Lives Matter,' but it's fair to wonder how many NFL team owners share his sentiment. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video statement on Friday night condemning racism and saying 'Black Lives Matter,' but it's fair to wonder how many NFL team owners share his sentiment. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

And for the cynical among us, it also seems fair to wonder if the sudden change from Goodell in the NFL is a result of recent Civiqs polling, via Pod Save America, that found public support for the Black Lives Matter movement is rising, with 50 percent of the country supporting, 76 percent saying racism is a big problem in the United States and 78 percent saying the anger that sparked the current wave of protests is justified.

If the majority of Americans back the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, it stands to reason that the league won’t lose money, and NFL team owners have repeatedly shown us that profits are the driver of nearly every decision they make.

Goodell’s statement was strong. It may have been his finest moment in almost 14 years as commissioner.

But now the real work begins: The video can’t be the beginning and end of Goodell’s commitment. It can’t be the beginning and end of the league doing anything but put money toward grassroots and civil rights groups.

Once the shock value of hearing Goodell, in his blue sweater and not-lit-for-prime-time-paneled room, say “black lives matter” and “we were wrong” wears off, the pressure has to be maintained.

We need to ask what is being done within the league, and what the league is doing in the communities and cities where players live and play. Are front offices being diversified? Is the league office being diversified?

Are programs going beyond having players sit with police to be told how they should and shouldn’t act? Are they putting pressure on municipalities and police departments to end use-of-force techniques or mandate de-escalation tactics or to stop accepting military-grade equipment that is too often used unnecessarily and escalates tensions?

We need to hope that even when President Trump inevitably makes Goodell a punching bag, or tries, again, to twist the intention of peaceful protests, that he stands firm and that the league continues to make good on the promise he made Friday evening.

In his statement last Saturday, Goodell said the league recognizes the “power of its platform in our communities.”

The time to use that power starts now.

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