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Roger Goodell’s response signals major shift in NFL; now comes the hard part

After making the smart choice, the NFL commissioner has to make it work


Backed into a corner and having only one viable option, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell chose wisely.

In a remarkable video response Friday to what even some pushing for change within the game considered to be an ambitious, to say the least, series of requests by more than a dozen star players – including Pro Bowl quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson – the man who leads professional sports’ most powerful and influential organization went all-in. Goodell admitted the league has erred in how it handled peaceful NFL player protests of police brutality and systemic oppression, condemned racism and affirmed that black lives matter, pledging his allegiance to the players in the battle for equal justice under the law.

Goodell took a much stronger position than what was conveyed recently in the tepid statement attributed to him after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by police. And Goodell’s acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of black players (about 70% of the league’s players are black) to the success of the NFL further signaled that a major shift literally occurred overnight in a game in which substantive change usually happens at a glacial pace.

“We’ve seen tectonic things happening for several days and many have been astounding,” said N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University, alluding to the unfamiliar feeling of change in the air regarding race relations and policing amid the civil unrest over Floyd’s death.

“I’m not surprised with what Roger did. I’ve spent time in rooms with him. I believe that he is truly committed to equal opportunity. But he has now stuck his flag in the ground. He is going to be judged by the way that he follows up on what he said.”

Which, as always, is the hard part.

Once the players’ video dropped, Goodell was on the clock. With both Watson and Mahomes attached to the project, ignoring the players’ move was not on the table, several black league executives and coaches told The Undefeated.

Franchise quarterbacks run the NFL. Watson is in that group. Mahomes occupies a club of one. The youngest player to have a Super Bowl championship, league MVP award and a Super Bowl MVP award, Mahomes is now the face of the game – and he wields all the clout that comes along with the crown.

When the quarterback who’s standing atop the mountain looks into the camera and declares, “black lives matter,” well, it suddenly became time for Goodell to explain the realities of navigating the new world to his billionaire bosses. No longer could the NFL offer its considerable social justice efforts alone as proof it fully backs the overwhelming majority of its on-field workforce.

“The NFL was trying to put a bandage on a bullet wound,” said University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, who teaches race and popular culture. “They’ve tried to manage it [protests and issues important to black players] as opposed to actually engage in it, which, to me, is different.

“What the players are talking about … it’s not something that can be managed. We’ve seen what has happened in the streets the last week. You can’t manage that. You have to be totally engaged. You have to be totally invested.”

For Goodell to say that black lives matter is a radical departure from where the league had remained entrenched since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat and then kneeled during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression in 2016 (more on him later). And make no mistake, the NFL will likely pay a price for finally becoming woke.

The lack of empathy owners and league officials exhibited in dealing with the protest movement was born out of fear about their bottom line. They wanted it to end quickly, hoping to allay the concerns of many of their fans and jittery corporate partners, who erroneously conflated the protests with disrespecting the U.S. flag.

Despite the reckoning unfolding on race nationally, a large group of the NFL’s white supporters, who were vocal in their opposition to the anthem protests, likely won’t take kindly to the league’s new stance. Count on Goodell also having to smooth things over with companies in business with the league.

Also keep a close eye on whether the league’s new “black is beautiful” mantra also extends to its hiring decisions. Throughout the 100-year history of the league, NFL owners have turned their backs on qualified candidates of color while filling management positions. That’s why the NFL will begin the season with only three black head coaches and one Latino head coach and two black general managers (the league has never had a black team president).

The problem is such a stain on the league, Goodell recently pushed through the most aggressive hiring initiatives in league history and actually wanted to go further. During the next hiring cycle, with the league’s new commitment to black people, will Goodell lean heavily on clubs to reward deserving executives and coaches passed over repeatedly for the wrong reason? Or will owners, who clearly were both informed of and backed Goodell’s decision, even need to be pushed?

Without a doubt, the commissioner has some heavy lifting ahead.

The alternative, however, was for Goodell to crack down on the players, saying the video was not consistent with the NFL’s mission and affirming he doesn’t support the players’ agenda. That obviously wouldn’t have gone over spectacularly and would have added an accelerant to a growing fire.

There are a number of issues – the federal government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment stemming from the health crises and inequality in the justice system – disproportionately affecting black people that could inspire players to protest during the season. The league essentially declaring war on some of the game’s biggest black stars would have been another significant item on the list.

“We are in the eye of the storm. The first part of the storm,” said Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr., who teaches religion and African American studies. “It’s calm in the eye of the storm. You get to go out and assess the damage. But then there’s the back end. We haven’t experienced the back end and what it’s going to do to us.

“The back end is going to be the effects of all protests with regard to [potentially spreading] the coronavirus. We haven’t experienced, just yet, the full impact of massive [black] unemployment. And then we’ve got the trial of the police officers with regard to the murder of George Floyd. There are many things that could [lead to players choosing to protest].”

After the NFL mishandled the revision of its anthem policy, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to continue to permit players to peacefully demonstrate. The protest movement fizzled after the owners and the Players Coalition, the main group that negotiated with the NFL on behalf of protesting players, entered into an agreement to fund social justice causes.

There wasn’t an explicit quid pro quo, but the expectation from owners was that players would no longer have the desire to protest if the sides were working together. There was always an underlying flaw, though, in the owners’ thinking: Regardless of the social justice deal, another tragedy involving police could inspire players to protest en masse again. In their video, the players strongly indicated they intend to use their voices. Goodell needed to get ahead of that train.

Thus, his many critics say, there’s nothing Goodell should ever be able to say or do to engender trust from the NFL’s black players, because he’s complicit in the owners’ decision to end Kaepernick’s career. Although Kaepernick wasn’t mentioned in Goodell’s video, Kaepernick ignited the movement and paid the biggest price of any protester. That’s just fact.

After Kaepernick settled his collusion grievance with the league, it was highly doubtful he would ever again be on an NFL roster. Following his league office-arranged tryout in November, which resulted in acrimony and finger-pointing, the door was slammed, nailed shut and hermetically sealed.

But for those who doubt Goodell’s sincerity, others say give him a chance to prove it.

“I was struck by the depth of the commissioner’s statement,” executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Rod Graves wrote in a text to The Undefeated. Graves leads the independent group that advises the NFL on diversity matters.

“I believe it was honest and straightforward. I also believe he spoke for himself as well as the National Football League. When a person comes through the door in that fashion, you have to embrace their intentions. Through this acknowledgment, we have an opportunity to focus on change for the better.”

Indeed. After Goodell unexpectedly stepped in front of a camera and offered mea culpas to support players eager for their lives to finally matter, the environment seems ripe for change.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.