On Saturday, the NFL, like so many brands eager to capitalize on a horrific situation, released a statement on the police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd. This press release stood out for its audacity. The thoughts allegedly attributed to league commissioner Roger Goodell were a significantly diminished version of what was actually said by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback blackballed by the NFL for delivering a far more effective message four years ago.
This collection of words is so obviously and excessively polished that it fails to say anything meaningful. Kenny Stills and Eric Reid, two players with close ties to Kaepernick, reacted accordingly. Nowhere does the statement provide the details of “the tragic events” that befell Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor; it’s written as if they had died of an illness. Nowhere does it mention who killed those three people, or acknowledge that they were Black. Nowhere does it mention police violence. Instead, when shown incontrovertible proof of Kaepernick’s message—that law enforcement dehumanizes and kills Black people as well as other people of color—in the form of a video of officer Derek Chauvin suffocating Floyd with his knee for more than eight minutes, the best the NFL could do is say it now realizes “the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society.” Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league are now ready to address “systemic issues,” without ever mentioning the player who brought those issues to the attention of the league and much of the public. The whole exercise is so brazen that I’m surprised the NFL’s social media handler wasn’t struck down by lightning when they pressed the button.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in August 2016, when the press first noticed his refusal to stand for the national anthem. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Very little has changed since the quarterback made those remarks. But currently, as the nation is filled with plenty of examples of police using excessive force against peaceful protesters, the NFL desperately wants to elide this truth. It won’t even say that Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor were killed, for fear of alienating the segment of its audience easily riled up by cartoon pig socks. A long, exhausting culture war by conservatives has attempted to distort Kaepernick’s message into an insipid test of patriotism.
The league and its owners are as scared as they were in September 2017 when Donald Trump, in his first year as president, said any player who peacefully protested was a “son of a bitch” who should be out of a job. The movement was co-opted the following weekend as large swaths of players took a knee, in some cases with their coaches or the team owners. The nadir of this performance was when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made sure to be right in front of the camera and smirked like he had discovered a vaccine for racism. Then he went back to demanding his players stand up for the anthem and was caught on video the following summer wearing a hat and talking to his son while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
When the Trump contingent continued to gripe after the widespread demonstrations, the NFL pursued a baffling strategy in May 2018. The league owners, along with Goodell, approved a new policy that would require every player to stand for the anthem or to be in the locker room as it played. If any league personnel didn’t obey this rule, the punishment ranged from club fines to discipline handed down by the commissioner. The NFL was ordering all its players to take their protests where no one could see them, nullifying the entire purpose. This anthem edict was never enforced and essentially dissolved two months later after the NFLPA pushed back.
Two years and a week later, the NFL’s statement was so hollow and cynical that it might have been better to not release one at all. The league spent so much time and effort treating peaceful demonstration as a problem that would hurt the bottom line, doing everything it could to shut Kaepernick up, contorting his original message so that it was meaningless but marketable, and orchestrating a sham workout as a final gesture of bad faith. Every significantly worse quarterback signed instead of him generated a flimsier excuse.
The NFL’s shameful behavior exposes why it’s so absurd to treat the premature end of Kaepernick’s football career as a stale topic. It’s always been relevant, as the NFL has now definitively proved. Americans across the nation will no longer tolerate the excuses made for police and are ready to burn it all down, so Kaepernick’s peaceful protest that was once “disrespectful” is now held up as the preferable option. The issues he raised are as pressing as ever. The least the league could do is acknowledge who started the conversation. If it wanted to go a little further, maybe a team would actually sign him. Even former league flack Joe Lockhart said as much.
Still, all of that should have been done a long time ago. The NFL had its chance to unequivocally support peaceful protest, but it chose to treat Kaepernick like an infection and blacklist him. When public opinion overwhelmingly demanded civil protest because they realized Black people were angry, and righteously so, the league tried to pretend that it had always supported players using their platforms to bring attention to issues such as racial injustice and police brutality. The Kaepernick saga makes it baldly clear that the league’s employees, from Goodell on down, were completely ill-equipped to handle the moment, and will just as likely botch the next one. To restore any of the NFL’s credibility, the right thing to do now would be to clean out the whole league office, starting with the commissioner.
Listen to a conversation about the NFL’s response to George Floyd’s killing and the protests on an episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.