In September 1969, Charlie Goodell decided he was opposed to the Vietnam War. This was no small thing. Goodell was a Republican senator from New York, appointed to the job after nine years in the House of Representatives.
He was selected, in part, because he was considered a loyal Republican, and the Republican in the White House (Richard Nixon) wasn’t expecting him to rock any boats. Yet there he was, doing just that.
Goodell previously supported the war in Southeast Asia. After speaking to its opponents, particularly students on New York college campuses, he no longer could. He wasn't going to hide his change of opinion.
“He came back and sat us all down as a family,” said his son Roger, then 10 and now the commissioner of the NFL. “[He] said, ‘I made a decision that I am going to oppose the Vietnam War. It will not be popular with the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, and I will likely not win my reelection, but it is the right thing to do.’”
Indeed, Charlie Goodell lost the election in 1972 and was done with politics. Yet his son and the rest of the family say they take “tremendous pride” in Charlie’s principled stance.
“He stood up for what he believed,” Roger Goodell said. “It’s not easy to know what is right, but when you do know what is right, you have to have the courage to do it.”
The headline from that was Goodell continuing to apologize for the NFL’s reaction to the Colin Kaepernick-led demonstrations during the pregame national anthem in 2016 and 2017. In doing so, he continued to signal that those protests will be welcomed, or at least tolerated, in 2020.
“I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,” Goodell said.
The Vietnam story explains the thinking. Where the NFL once thought one way about the anthem demonstrations, it now thinks the other. And like Charlie Goodell back in the day, it is no longer afraid of the subject, the public backlash or the reaction of the White House’s occupant.
Whether you agree with Goodell or not, whether you think it’s too little too late or not, whether you wish the players stood or not, whether you wish Kaepernick was on a roster or not … this reversal has been astounding to watch.
A league once so paralyzed in fear over the issue that it tried to straddle some middle fence now has a commissioner, who works for the same mostly conservative team owners, out here all but cheering it on.
Goodell said his opinion shifted when he went along with the Players Coalition for community operations and learned more about the criminal justice system, including the role of bail, parole, sentencing and other things.
“I didn’t know what was going on in the communities,” Goodell said on Acho’s show. “... I’m a big believer in dialogue. And frankly, I talk to my kids all the time and others, you really don’t learn until you’re uncomfortable. And really when you get uncomfortable, it forces you to resort to something that is uncomfortable with and gives you an opportunity to learn.”
This is an era of entrenched opinions, playing to the base and insulting anyone with a different point of view, not listening and learning. Or at least it was.
Somewhere along the way, namely after George Floyd and in the middle of Jacob Blake, his franchise owners seemed to go along with him. (Goodell is unlikely to speak out so boldly against the wishes of his employers.)
The 2020 season is just over two weeks away. The Republican National Convention, starring President Donald Trump, takes place this week. Goodell is all but signaling how things will be, no matter how much the decision is rejected by many fans or turned into a cudgel for Trump to wail away with.
Like Charlie Goodell looking at his political future, the NFL doesn’t seem like it is going to care anymore about the fallout.
Make no mistake, if players, coaches and even club owners are taking a knee in a couple weeks, there will be backlash. Some fans are going to turn off the television. They’ve done it before. Maybe that number is smaller than in 2016, but it is likely to be noticeable.
And Trump is likely to start using the NFL as an applause line. It worked well four years ago. There is no reason to expect restraint now, after all, he’s already stated, “if they don’t stand for the national anthem, I hope they don’t open.”
All of this is setting up a major fight this fall. And yet here is Goodell, not running from the controversy the way the league once did, but practically leaning into the punch.
“We have never disciplined a single player for anything at the national anthem ... and I don’t intend to,” Goodell said.
On Acho’s show, he forcefully made the argument that neither the NFL, nor its players, are anti-American or anti-troop or anti-flag. This goes beyond allowing players to speak up. This is adding his voice to the argument (and using his and the league’s bully pulpit to echo the sentiment would be a major contribution).
“This is not about the flag,” Goodell said. “These are not people who are unpatriotic. They’re not disloyal. They’re not against our military.”
This has always been the players’ stance. Their message struggled against the criticism four years ago. A measure of public opinion hardened against them.
We’ll see how much of it remains.
Either way, the NFL believes history has chosen a right side here and it wants to be on it. Additionally, as a business it may be aware it needs to appeal to young fans, who are more likely to support Kaepernick.
Four years after being scared of its own shadow, unwilling to commit one way or the next, the league is picking a side. And like his dad, Roger Goodell doesn’t appear worried about what’s to come.
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