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The clock is ticking for Roger Goodell.
Not for the NFL. Not for team owners. But specifically for the NFL commissioner.
The clock is ticking. More loudly than ever and in the face of a sweeping energy that isn’t going away. This moment — right now — is Goodell’s legacy moment. What he does in the coming months will shape how history looks back on him. And it has everything to do with Colin Kaepernick.
We should have realized this in the early morning of May 30, when a former member of Goodell’s executive staff, Joe Lockhart, dropped a significant opinion piece for CNN. It appeared to speak directly to something that Goodell couldn’t, lest he throw caution to the wind and wreak havoc on his bosses, which might be exactly what he needs to do. We’ll get to that in a moment. But let’s start with Lockhart, the former NFL vice president of communications and public affairs, whose column for CNN said something along the lines of:
We in the league office tried to get Colin Kaepernick back into the NFL. But team owners stood in the way.
This is an important distinction because for a long time, Goodell has been the lead piñata for those who question why Kaepernick was being shut out of the league. He has always been the shield for the shield, the first and most convenient guy in line for criticism over Kaepernick’s plight. And perhaps rightfully so, given that franchise owners have compensated him at a historic financial clip that makes him the single highest-paid sports commissioner in the history of the planet. When you collect checks like that, you absorb most of the league’s body blows, too.
Here’s the thing about Goodell: His reign is coming to an end.
Did Goodell fail in bid to persuade team owners on Kaepernick?
With the latest collective-bargaining agreement in the books, there are already successors being speculated inside the league office. His contract runs through the 2023 season and there are some team owners who privately don’t shy away from talking about what kind of replacement is needed to take the league into its next frontier. And when that happens, Goodell’s legacy will be cemented. There will be plenty of good, from the expansion of revenues, to a rise in popularity that made the NFL one of the most influential corporate entities in America, to 20 years of relatively uninterrupted labor peace and a meaningful product foothold overseas.
But there will also be Kaepernick, a resonating human symbol to a social justice movement and form of protest that will play a part in defining a righteous chapter in American history. More than three years since his last NFL game, that’s Kaepernick’s place in this era. And if the events of the past two weeks are any indication, the spotlight on his symbolism will intensify as time erases the critics.
If Goodell doesn’t see what that means for him, let’s go ahead and state it in the most blunt terms: History will remember a right and wrong side of Colin Kaepernick’s story. The same as it has ultimately come to draw a defining line of right and wrong on Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Jackie Robinson and the scores of other black athletes who have made sacrifices or taken stands that have been etched into the bedrock of America’s history of racial inequality.
Today, Goodell has to ask himself where he’s going to stand when it comes to Kaepernick. Whether he wanted it or not, the worst and most predictable set of circumstances have offered Goodell a second chance at resolving a wrong. Or at the very least, speaking clearly and unambiguously about that wrong. It has given Goodell the chance to be counted in his chosen column — either on the side of team owners, who have illustrated their decision, or on the side of peacefully protesting players, whose actions will resonate as loudly as ever when the 2020 season begins.
This decision remains in Goodell’s hands. He won’t be afforded the luxury of counting himself as a witness to the events surrounding Kaepernick. He’ll be remembered as a participant. Either he was actively aiding NFL franchise owners when it came to Kaepernick being shut out of the league or he was a silent partner, simply because he refused to say one thing: “I believe Colin Kaepernick belongs in the NFL. I have worked to get Colin Kaepernick back into the NFL. I have ultimately lost that battle because I cannot force the hands of NFL owners.”
It’s reasonable to believe that Goodell actually subscribes to those words. Lockhart’s column for CNN suggests that Goodell and the NFL’s league office tried to persuade team owners to provide an opportunity for Kaepernick. Of course, that’s an after-the-fact assertion that is worthy of plenty of suspicion. Lockhart could be rewriting the facts to make himself and the league look better in the face of the death of George Floyd, who died beneath the knee of the same type of police brutality that drove Kaepernick to begin his protests during the national anthem in 2016.
There’s also the chance that Lockhart isn’t reshaping the league office’s culpability when it came to Kaepernick. There’s the chance that Goodell, Lockhart and others earnestly tried to keep the league’s team owners from shutting out Kaepernick forever. Maybe that happened. Maybe they failed. And maybe Goodell has been getting unfairly hammered ever since. That seems to be what Lockhart suggested when he called for an NFL team to sign Kaepernick right now.
“The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and other league executives tried to persuade the teams to change their minds,” Lockhart wrote. “The league sent owners and players around the country to try to lead a dialogue on race relations and to move, as the sociologist and human rights activist Harry Edwards said, ‘from protest to progress.’ Though Kaepernick didn’t get his job back, I thought we had all done a righteous job, considering. I was wrong. I think the teams were wrong for not signing him. Watching what’s going on in Minnesota, I understand how badly wrong we were.”
If that passage is legitimate, Lockhart did something righteous. He told a truth that has been elusive for years in the NFL. At no point has Goodell or anyone else ever come close to saying, “We tried, but it was the franchise owners who shut out Kaepernick.”
Now is time for Goodell to make a stand
All of which brings us back to Goodell. He has an opportunity here to affirm what Lockhart wrote. All he has to do is say, “What Joe wrote is true, we tried to create an opportunity for Kaepernick, but the team owners refused to yield.”
Would that statement be impactful? Absolutely.
It would represent a moment when the league’s fall guy in the Kaepernick era refused to offer himself up as protection for his bosses. It would be proof that franchise owners couldn’t buy Goodell’s silence at a time when silence is one of the most vile and damaging tools used in the fight against equality. And it would further suggest that even now, three years after Kaepernick’s career ended, Goodell is willing to take a second opportunity and say the same words that Lockhart wrote.
“I was wrong.”
There is a very forgiving space for that phrase in the NFL today. And Goodell knows it, as he now stands as the most significant NFL employee to admit as much when he delivered a mea culpa of sorts in a video where he said, “We, the National Football League, were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and protest peacefully.”
That is halfway to a legacy-defining statement. Goodell listened to his players and said precisely what they needed in order to feel the league was finally hearing them. But again, it went only halfway. Goodell never said Kaepernick’s name. There was no expression of contrition for ending the career of a player who began the tidal wave that Goodell was now endorsing. And there was no suggestion that maybe there could be a renewed effort to fix a wrong that never should have happened in the first place.
There is still time for Goodell to go the rest of the way. There is still time to make a defining admission about Kaepernick and to renew an effort to get him back into the NFL. There is still time to say what Lockhart has said: “This is the decision of the team owners. Not me. And I was wrong to stay quiet about that.”
This is the difference between being a silent witness or a meaningful participant. When it comes to Kaepernick’s ouster and the role Goodell has played in all of it, his inability to point the finger at team ownership continues to put him on the wrong side of history. He can still change that. And with it, he can still alter a defining piece of his legacy in the process.
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