“We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday in a hastily composed video statement on the police and white vigilante killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. That Goodell said anything at all is a testament to the work of the league’s black stars, like Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham, and others, who the day before released a video condemning the NFL for its silence.
It’s a point of journalistic responsibility to state now that no self-respecting person should much care what Goodell, a bootlicking yes-man, has to say. He is a meat shield paid handsomely by the league’s owners to extract profit. And when it comes to protecting the craven millionaires and billionaires atop the most profitable sports league in the nation, he has no equal. While, by all accounts, Goodell wields very little actual power—meaning the message he shared on Friday was not the message of an NFL commissioner but of an NFL lackey—his statement is still instructive: It demonstrates the ways that the league’s owners will simultaneously serve their profit mandate and erase the work of the players who—at real personal risk—forced the change.
For the past three seasons, Colin Kaepernick, once a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has been blackballed by the overwhelmingly white NFL owners. His unforgivable offense was his protest of police brutality, which included silently kneeling during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to kickoff. He has not played a down since January 1, 2017. In the time since then, Kaepernick rolled out a P.R. campaign backed by Nike, a soulless corporation mainly operating out of a fear of backlash should it cut ties, which spurred the hilarious trend of True Americans™ trashing their swooshes. Meanwhile, the NFL brought in Jay-Z and Roc Nation and was rewarded with the “We’ve moved past kneeling” soundbite from Jay-Z it was looking for. (Some NFL players, like Kenny Stills, were rightfully pissed at the statement, telling reporters at the time that Jay-Z was, “choosing to speak for the people like he had spoken to the people.”)
Otherwise, the league hasn’t much bothered to respond to the actual issue Kaepernick was protesting, beyond handing him $10 million in a settlement to end his collusion lawsuit. This continued on Friday: Goodell did not once say Kaepernick’s name in his video statement on Floyd’s murder. If we’re being generous, Goodell was including him when he referenced the vague cohort of “NFL players” he believes the league should have listened to sooner. Kaepernick was not alone, as Eric Reid and Stills both continued protesting after the league owners shadow-banned Kaepernick, and as Houston Texans safety Michael Thomas told NBCSports, it’s difficult to buy the league’s sincerity if its commissioner is too frightened or proud to say the names of the people he’s apologizing to. But even had Goodell come out and said, “Colin Kaepernick, I was wrong, the owners were wrong,” it’s also worth asking whether anything the league says on this issue really matters anymore.
As my former colleague Billy Haisley wrote: For corporations, there is no ethical dissent under capitalism. That is, Nike is no better for fronting Kaepernick’s philanthropic efforts than the NFL is for partnering with Roc Nation. For the companies, these are business decisions all ultimately in service of moving product, not furthering a message or social change. The brands don’t care.
And while the matter of intent is the obvious and crucial difference, the same dynamic is at work in Kaepernick, who is both a person and, now, a brand. Kaepernick, the man, accomplished something great at great professional cost. He spread awareness of police brutality while exposing the NFL as a cynical, racist outfit. He then redirected his settlement dollars toward affected communities and grassroots organizations. But Kaepernick, the brand, cashes Nike checks and signs deals to distribute his memoir through Amazon-owned Audible. Even as a force for good, separating oneself entirely from the transactional system of capitalism and public-facing do-gooding means sacrificing some of the ground you’re standing on. It’s a fraught position. There is no such dilemma for the league.
With or without Goodell’s 81-second response, the NFL is no better than any of the other brands trying to seize the moment by throwing money at the issue in hopes of whitewashing their complicity. But, as the video put out by Patrick Mahomes and other players made clear, silence was not an option, either.
Corporate responses are, unfortunately, the norm now, and as they represent the most visible sport in America, the NFL and its leaders were always going to have to say something. This precise moment is one that the NFL should have been ready for after Kaepernick took a knee four years ago. So how the hell did it screw it up so badly? Because it’s trying to walk the untenable line of making a statement against something that it is not actually against. The NFL is racist inequality—runs on it, reproduces it, requires it. How do you make a statement against yourself?
The league’s white stars and leaders remain in a state of arrested development. Denver head coach Vic Fangio responded by saying, and then apologized for saying, that he “doesn’t see racism at all in the NFL.” New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a first-ballot Hall of Famer whenever he finally stops tormenting the NFC South, quickly claimed the honor of being the NFL’s Offensive Idiot of the Month when he told Yahoo that, even in the wake of Minneapolis prosecutors upping Officer Derek Chauvin’s charges to second-degree murder, he still wouldn’t support kneeling protests.
The coalition of players that railed against the Saints quarterback included Brees’s own teammates. Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins posted a response video directly addressed to Brees, saying:
I’m a black man walking around America and I’m telling you I’m dealing with these things, I’m telling you my communities are dealing with these things, and your response to me is, “Don’t talk about that here. This is not the place.”
Brees backpedaled quickly, triggering President Trump’s entrance to the debacle, writing that Brees should not have apologized and, more bluntly, “NO KNEELING.” This is typically the spot in an article where a far more adept writer, like New Republic contributor David Roth, would expound on Trump’s ability to extend his finger and warp any given conversation on this subject beyond recognition. I will simply say that Trump’s ability to recognize that NFL owners, like himself, are driven purely by money and the ability to control their employees is one of his few lucid instincts.
The NFL is built to run this way. As Samer Kalaf wrote here in January, the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate in head coaching searches, is indicative of one of the league’s defining features: Out of the 32 franchises, there are just three black head coaches and one black general manager. The league’s owners have recently decided to address this, not because of any moral imperative, but because they recognize it’s a bad look. Case in point: A month ago, the league publicly floated incentivizing minority hires with improved draft picks. While it ultimately scrapped that idea and extended the Rooney Rule to apply to other senior coaching and executive positions, that it made it to the stage of public debate at all is astonishing. The same group of white men now denouncing police violence against black people thought they could personally solve their own outright racist hiring practices by dangling a slightly better third-round pick in front of themselves.
Now, per Front Office Sports, the NFL is considering “allowing” protests of racist policing and police brutality during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is a particularly confusing approach, as such kinds of protests are not officially outlawed by the NFL rules. It is a recognition of what Goodell refused to acknowledge—that Kaepernick was blackballed from the league for protesting—without accepting any consequences or specific blame. It’s akin to watching career law enforcement hawks like Kamala Harris or Joe Biden suddenly offer platitudes about reforming—but not defunding—police departments. It is sheer nothingness, words for the sake of filling the void and minimizing further scandal. Real slime shit.
While the NFL is always mentioned, along with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, as one of the dominant sports leagues in the United States, its politics have felt closer in spirit to those of Nascar—the same foundation of cultural conservatism, just with slightly less jagged edges. Where, two months ago, driver Kyle Larson was suspended from the racing league for saying the n-word on a livestream, Buffalo Bills quarterback Jake Fromm apologized last week after leaked 2019 text messages revealed he thought that only “elite white people” should own guns.
Where white Nascar drivers are waffling over whether to ban fans from bringing Confederate flags into race tracks, the New England Patriots drafted a kicker with a tattoo bearing the symbol of a far-right militia. Where Nascar team owner Richard Petty said, in 2017, that, “anybody that don’t stand up for [the national anthem] ought to be out of the country,” the NFL team owners made kneeling a finable offense during the 2018 off-season before walking it back two months later, fearing the optics and union grievances stemming from teams suspending kneeling players. You get the idea. They’re trying to survive the moment with their brand intact while refusing to fundamentally change anything.
What Goodell and the league do now is a matter of branding and headlines. What they did to Kaepernick and the players who first tried to take an institutional stand against racist police violence is their true position. And it’s why the NFL will forever be a league of cops.