ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 15: Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest on the sideline, during the anthem, prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on October 16, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills defeated the 49ers 45-16. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Photo by: Michael Zagaris
Like many people, I couldn't help but roll my eyes when the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell released their latest video pulling a 180 on peaceful anti-racism protests. Watch it here:
Goodell said the words "black lives matter," and, even more surprisingly, admitted that his league was wrong in failing to listen to its players earlier. That's all fine and good if you believe it's anything more than the owners and their PR armies sensing which way the wind blows and realizing they can't get away with being on the wrong side of history any longer. It's not more than that, of course, and we can tell it's not because we saw what happened to Colin Kaepernick when he protested police brutality in a very measured and very peaceful way less than four years ago.
When public sentiment was more mixed and perhaps tilting against Kaepernick among the NFL's fan base, Goodell stood idly by while the president and countless others tried to make his activism about the troops and the flag, and the most the commish would say publicly was that he didn't "necessarily agree" with the protest...while working furiously to undermine it in private. The league's main PR strategy was to take the air out of the protests by co-opting the anger expressed by players like Kaepernick and turning it into a toothless call for "unity" that was lacking any specifics. That led to the farce of men like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones—who absolutely did not belong there—standing arm-in-arm with his players in support of essentially nothing. Two years later, they passed a rule banning anthem kneel-downs, and only retracted it after major blowback.
After neutering the message, the league blackballed Kaepernick, releasing him after the season and then letting the years go by without giving him a shot anywhere. They were eventually forced to pay him and Eric Reid in a settlement after claims of collusion were filed (financial terms weren't disclosed), and while Reid got back on an NFL roster, so far Kaepernick has not. If you think the former star was released and never re-signed due to "football reasons," you need to read this breakdown of why that's complete BS. He was not the league's best quarterback, but he absolutely belonged on a roster as a lower-tier starter or an excellent backup option.
It's all well and good for Goodell to admit he was wrong here in 2020, and to call out the "systematic oppression of black people" and "the centuries of silence, inequality, and oppression," but four years ago, he cared far more about the reaction of conservative fans and found it convenient to silence the protests and tacitly punish the ringleaders. This recent change of heart isn't courageous or sincere—it's the same reason flocks of politicians, including Barack Obama, suddenly supported gay marriage publicly in 2012 once polls showed that more than 50% of Americans did. Massive public-facing organizations like the NFL blow with the wind, and they know how quickly things change. Now that a tidal wave of rage tied to police violence has risen, they're scampering to switch sides. If a poll came out tomorrow saying the majority of Americans thought dogs should be launched into the sun, the NFL would invest in catapults. There's no real morality here, just corporate self-interest.
Goodell's words are a sign of the times, I suppose, and the best you can say is that it's certainly better late than never. But the shelf life of an NFL player is very short, and Colin Kaepernick has now missed four years of his prime. He's 32, his window is closing, and it's inarguable that his career was derailed because he took a controversial stance that the NFL now supports. I'd say "pay the man," but he already settled with the NFL and I'm sure buying his relative silence came at a price. What they owe him now is public restitution. Goodell needs to say his name—as Howard Bryant wrote, it matters that he didn't—he needs to apologize for ruining his career, and he needs to face an American audience and accept real accountability for lacking courage when courage would have been hard.
Surprisingly good apology of the week: Drew Brees
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 05: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints stands on the field during the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Photo by: Sean Gardner
On the flip side of the NFL coin is Drew Brees, who brought things back to the topic of the flag and troops in critical comments made earlier, but then seemed to genuinely realize he was wrong. This is less about what you think of the protests, and more about their content—like them, hate them, agree or disagree, it's critical to take them on their true terms. Which makes Brees' comments on Instagram so surprising:
"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. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform."
As I said, if Brees went on to say that he fundamentally disagreed with the protests and supported cops, all of that would be fair game. What matters here is that he did them the service of acknowledging their real complaints, admitted he had misrepresented those complaints before, and even stood by it after the president scolded him on Twitter for going back on his original comments. Brees is a strange guy, with a strange history, but unlike what we saw from Goodell, his reversal showed real thought and character.