In March 2018, the NFL announced it would fine teams if any of its players knelt on the sideline. If a player didn’t want to stand for the national anthem, he could remain in the locker room until its completion. The issue had become so heated that our Vice President walked out of a game in Indianapolis, his sensibilities apparently having been overwhelmed by the sight of kneelers. Our President tweeted: “Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!”
On Friday, a bit more than two years later, commissioner Roger Goodell released a video in which he said: “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter."
All those words bear resonance, but the key three are, “We were wrong.”
Maybe we – meaning us citizens of these United States – should have known a lot sooner that something was wrong. It shouldn’t have taken the final eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life to show us how wrong we were. Anyone who watches that video cannot still believe everything in the U.S.A. is A-OK. We cannot ignore what Colin Kaepernick tried to tell us back when.
Of Watergate, the White House counsel-turned-whistle-blower John Dean told Richard Nixon: “There is a cancer growing on the presidency.” Kaepernick and many, many others sought to impart a more chilling message: There is a cancer growing on a country wherein all men were created equal, or so we were taught in grade school. An accounting of the latest in the grim series of black lives lost – Breonna Taylor in Louisville; Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick; Floyd in Minneapolis – marks the end of any possible denial.
The only “wrong” now is in trying to convince yourself that racism – 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, 12 years after the election of an African American as President of these United States – no longer lurks at the heart of America. Those old enough to recall Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders might have thought that, in the 20th year of the 21st Century, the vision of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” – would surely have come to pass. For some, maybe it has. Not for all.
My dad used to say, “You can’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” (I don’t believe the thought was original to William A. Bradley, but it was new to me.) I’ve never taken a step as an African American. I’d like to think I have empathy for all humans, but I realize empathy has limits. As my neighbor Shaun Powell, who works for NBA.com, once told me: “If you go into a restaurant and get bad service, you figure it’s just bad service. If I do, I’m never sure.”
>> Complete coverage: Atlanta protests
As a white guy, I’m aware anything I say on this issue could come across as facile. As a professional observer, I’ll offer this: The outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter over the past 10 days has been revelatory. Nearly every business has sought to send the message, “We hear you, and we’re with you.” It’s possible they’re saying as much because to say anything else, even to say nothing, would be impolitic. It’s also possible they’re absolutely sincere. At least for today, let’s go with that.
From Acts 9:18: “Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.” Did it take too long for many among to see what others had insisted was there all along? Without question. Having seen, can we go back to turning a blind eye? Doubtful.
Consider Drew Brees. Earlier in the week, the Saints quarterback reiterated his belief that the American flag should never be disrespected. A nigh-universal outcry arose, the loudest voices coming from his teammates. Their point: This was NEVER about the flag; this was about a societal wrong that needed righting. Brees offered a prompt apology.
On Friday, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation upbraided Brees for apologizing, tweeting, “There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag - NO KNEELING!"
Brees offered this response on Instagram: “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. ... We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities. We must acknowledge the problems, identify the solutions, and then put this into action. The black community cannot do it alone. This will require all of us."
At this late date, the only rational thought is to acknowledge that our nation has an imbalance that, for as much as we’ve tried, hasn’t been corrected. The NFL, which can be as stubborn as all get-out, just conceded the point. A year from now, maybe that won’t seem a big deal. In the here and now, it’s massive.
The NFL just said, “We were wrong.” It’s time – way past time, but all we have is the precious present – for all of us to get this right.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.