Some of the NFL's biggest stars - its biggest African-American stars, at least - aligned late Thursday night in a powerful video that should have resonated deep in the NFL's Park Avenue offices. Their message, that Black Lives Matter, that racism and oppression is unacceptable, is one everyone needs to hear.
But the video was more than a message. It was a pointed challenge to the NFL to do the right thing - the thing they should have done four years ago when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem. They asked - demanded - the league to "admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting."
That's exactly what the NFL needs to do.
And after that, the next time the national anthem is played before an NFL game, the entire league should take a knee with them.
This, of course, is usually where the anger comes in, where people like Saints quarterback Drew Brees channel their outrage about "disrespecting the flag." Except that it's never been about the flag or the anthem or the military. Kaepernick and the players who supported him couldn't have been clearer on that point - one they made publicly and privately to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and every team owner in the league.
It was about what we're seeing now, every night on the streets of America. It was about what the world saw happen to George Floyd, being killed by a cop who spent nearly nine minutes with his knee on Floyd's neck, and so many black men and women who were victims before him. It was about the horrendous examples of police brutality we've all seen piling up on social media - disgusting acts on camera that should make everyone terrified of what happens when the cameras are off. And it was about shining a light on racial injustice and systematic racism that caused all this and is simply undeniable to anyone who is not willfully blind.
The NFL players' right to protest, which is an incredibly American act, was quashed by a league that effectively blackballed Kaepernick and "encouraged" its players to stand. They even made a rule that required them to stand, though they rescinded it under pressure two months later. The NFL likes to wrap itself in the flag and portray itself as an American institution, but it clearly only welcomed its own American ideals.
It's true the NFL has actually done a lot of good in the years since Kaepernick knelt down, despite blackballing him from the league. They created the Inspire Change Initiative which helps promote social justice and police community relations. As the NFL noted in a statement on Thursday, the league has already donated $44 million to organizations affiliated with the cause, and they are committed to $20 million more.
That matters and that is good. But their actions will always feel hollow if they don't acknowledge their original sin. Ideally, they would do that by giving Kaepernick a job - on the field or even in the league office -- but there's no sign that anyone in the league will ever have the courage to do that.
But they should be brave enough to at least admit that and apologize for that, and for the stance they took against a quiet, peaceful protest. It may not have been as destructive as, say, U.S. law enforcement tear-gassing peaceful protesters in front of the White House. But there was damage done, all the same.
So imagine the powerful statement the NFL could make with the words "We're sorry. We were wrong" Then imagine how strong they would look if, on opening weekend players and coaches and owners and even Goodell all gathered at midfield during the national anthems and took a knee together.
It would be a show of force more powerful than secret police roaming the streets. Undoubtedly some fans would revolt and disavow the sport, but so what? Maybe that's just the price of doing the right thing. The NFL, pre-COVID-19, was a $9 billion-a-year industry. They can withstand what almost certainly would only be a few hollow threats from disgruntled fans.
Yes, the NFL still needs to do more than even that. Their history of minority hiring, especially among general managers and head coaches, is atrocious and feels like it's getting worse. They need more diversity in ownership and in the league office. In that respect, they're not unlike the rest of our nation. We all need to do better and do more.
Maybe the apology and the kneeling would only be symbolic, but what a great symbol it would be. It would be an important start. And if nothing else, it would be a way to show they listened to Saquon Barkley, Jamal Adams, Odell Beckham Jr., Patrick Mahomes, and all the other players on that video. It would show that they heard Kaepernick, too, that they really were listening, not just dismissing their concerns.
It would say to the players and the world "We hear you. And now we see it, too." They could stand with their players, not against them.
And what better way to stand with them than by taking a knee while the anthem plays?