As recently as a few weeks ago it would have been hard to imagine Roger Goodell saying the words. The NFL commissioner said the league condemns “the systematic oppression of black people.” The league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” The NFL believes “black lives matter.”
Goodell represents team owners who once demanded that players “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem” before games. Now Goodell finally acknowledged that black players who took a knee were standing up for their humanity.
Goodell’s new message is welcome, though it won’t mean much without action by NFL owners. As it is, Goodell’s words ring hollow because of the words he didn’t say.
Goodell did not mention Colin Kaepernick. He protested systemic racism and police brutality during the 2016 season by kneeling during the anthem. No team signed him after that. Goodell also said nothing about police. Over the last week-plus they’ve proven the point of anti-racists by meeting protests of state violence against citizens with more of it.
Morally, the NFL has always been on the wrong side of this issue. It took a massive uprising by citizens to convince the NFL to say it. And even that required some of the NFL’s prominent black players to essentially force the words into Goodell’s mouth.
Yahoo Sports reported that Bryndon Minter, an employee for the NFL’s social media team, messaged Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas on Wednesday with an offer. He wanted to help Thomas produce a video to “put pressure” on the NFL to speak out. Minter did so without the knowledge of his bosses.
Thomas accepted the offer. The next night, Thomas and other black NFL stars released a video in which they invoked the names of George Floyd and other black people killed by police while calling out the NFL:
“We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit. So, on behalf of the National Football League, this is what we, the players, would like to hear you state: We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.”
By Friday evening, Goodell was repeating that message in the surreal video. I don’t want to completely discount its significance, but it’s not as if Goodell is taking a stand counter to the mainstream. Speaking out in support of players protesting systemic racism isn’t as unpopular now as it would have been in 2016, when Kaepernick began shaming America for its indifference to the plight of black people.
In a Morning Consult poll conducted Wednesday to Friday, 62% of U.S. adults said they “support the protests in response to the death of Floyd and others in the black community.” That’s an increase of eight percentage points from when the same question was asked May 31-June 1. More Americans are seeing the protests as a legitimate response to state-sanctioned violence against black people.
The shift in public sentiment makes it less risky for Goodell to say black lives matter. The NFL probably could have done the same in 2017, when other players took up Kaepernick’s protest, without a huge public backlash. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll in October that year found that 51% of registered voters said the protests were appropriate, and 68% said it was inappropriate for President Trump to call on those players to be fired and for fans to boycott the NFL.
Maybe NFL team owners were making a sound business calculation when they tried to ban players from protesting during the anthem before the 2018 season. They wanted to assuage the anger of customers who disapproved of the protests. What sounds like dispassionate analysis of market forces rests on the assumption that the NFL would lose money for standing up for the humanity of its black players.
But it’s wrong to say NFL team owners were only reacting to market forces. They hadn’t made much of an issue about anthem protests before Trump tried to use them as a politcal weapon. And team owners didn’t take real action to curtail those protests until Trump directly threatened their money.
In Oct. 2017, Trump tweeted: “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!"
It was one thing for Trump to call on team owners to fire any “son of a bitch” player who protested during the anthem. Now he was calling for an end to their government handout.
The NFL office had dropped its not-for-profit status in 2015. But team owners still were funding their private stadiums with taxpayer money. According to research by the Brookings Institute, NFL team owners received $1.3 billion in federal subsidies from 2000 to 2016 via tax-exempt municipal bonds and tax breaks for high-income bond holders.
Trump’s warning couldn’t just be dismissed as another one of his Twitter tantrums, and not just because it was an authoritarian abuse of power. At the time, the US. House was shaping a bill that would no longer allow tax-exempt municipal bonds to fund sports stadiums. The bill that passed out of the House included the prohibition, but the Republican Senate stripped it out for the final version of the bill that Trump signed into law in December 2017.
In the end, the NFL owners who had been verbally pilloried by Trump got the policy they wanted. That action was more important than his words.
Goodell is saying the right hing now. So is Jaguars team owner Shad Khan. An essay that Khan posted to the team’s website Wednesday concluded:
“Racism, in all its forms, will kill. It kills people, it kills communities, it kills dreams, it kills hope.
“For many Americans, now is the moment. Never has that been clearer.
I don't want to waste this moment.”
Khan contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. He’s one of nine NFL team owners who gave a total of $6.65 million. Other owners have continued to make political contributions to the president’s re-election campaign.
Among the first actions of Trump’s Justice Department was to question the court-ordered agreements that provided federal oversight of police departments with patterns of racial discrimination and civil rights violations. Last November, outgoing Attorney General Jeff Sessions severely curtailed the use of those agreements. Trump has spoken approvingly of rough treatment of suspects by police and on Monday threatened to deploy the U.S. military to put down the uprisings in cities.
Last year Khan said he supported Trump’s economic policies, but not his stance on social issues. That’s in tension to Goodell’s claim that black lives matter to the NFL. Saying that is a good first step. Now the league’s owners should take action to show it, and one good way to do that is to stop supporting politicians whose policies put black lives in danger.
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