Sports

Why the NFL Is Suddenly Standing Up for Black Lives

Roger Goodell knows which way the wind blows.

Screenshot of Roger Goodell on video with the subtitle "We, the National Football League, condemn racism."
NFL/Twitter

Four months ago, a week after the Super Bowl, the Undefeated—ESPN’s website dedicated to race, sports, and culture—posted a video of a conversation between former NFL receiver Victor Cruz, venerable sports columnist William C. Rhoden, and Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson, among others. The video was part of the Undefeated’s season-long media project titled “The Year of the Black QB,” and early in the clip, one of the panelists wondered aloud why current black NFL quarterbacks had not publicly offered support for Colin Kaepernick, who had been, and continues to be, exiled from the NFL ever since his now-iconic kneeling protest against police brutality.

Watson—the only current black NFL quarterback on the roundtable—spoke up.

“For me, personally … politics or religion, I stay away,” Watson said.

“Why?” someone asked.

“There can be a right and a wrong or a yes or a no, but in reality everyone is going to have their own opinions. So you’re fighting a battle that you can’t really win,” Watson answered.

It was the last time Watson spoke in the nearly five-minute video. He appeared uncomfortable the rest of the time he was on camera, sitting in the middle of the group with his hands folded over his abdomen, his chin nearly on his chest. True to his words, Watson didn’t seem to want any part of a discussion about Kaepernick. Which, for a young black quarterback in a league whose leadership and fans were openly hostile to the blackballed quarterback, was frankly understandable.

I was reminded of that moment this week when Watson was part of a star-studded cast of current players to appear in a poignant video demanding that the NFL take seriously their protest against systemic racism.

Watson appears 19 seconds into the video, asking viewers to ponder a world in which he and other NFL stars were George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Americans have poured into the streets, often in defiance of law enforcement and local curfews, to protest Floyd’s death specifically and racist police violence generally.

“We assert our right to peacefully protest,” the players said in unison at the end of the video, titled “Stronger Together,” after asking the NFL to listen to its players, “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” and “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting.”

It didn’t even take 24 hours for the NFL to publicly concede their argument. The league released its own video of commissioner Roger Goodell soberly responding to the players’ demands from the basement of his house on Friday.

“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell said. “We, the NFL, believe black lives matter.”

It was a stunning turnaround for a league that had catered more to President Donald Trump than its players during the 2017 kneeling protests, but let’s not confuse this sudden change of course with a sincere change of heart. The new stance comes from the very same place as the league’s previous prohibition of peaceful protests during the anthem: a morally bankrupt commitment to shifting with the winds of what its white fans find acceptable.

It’s worth remembering the NFL’s response in September 2017 after Trump said he would “love” to see an owner remove from the field and fire any “son of a bitch” who chose to kneel during the national anthem. The first impulse of the NFL owners, many of whom had supported Trump’s campaign in 2016 and seven of whom had donated at least $1 million to him, was not to defend their players but to protect the league’s bottom line and not offend the president and his supporters. Eventually, in a meeting that month of a small group of players and owners, the players conceded kneeling “might not be productive, because the message had been misconstrued,” according to ESPN.com.

This was Watson’s rookie season with the Texans, an especially tenuous time for a young quarterback tasked with being the new face of a franchise. He was undoubtedly torn between being a good teammate and being a company man. And there was no question where his company stood: In a meeting with owners and team executives, Texans owner Bob McNair—who donated $2 million in 2016 to a pro-Trump super PAC and $1 million for his inauguration—reportedly dismissed the player protests by saying, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” McNair later apologized, and when he died a year later, Watson spoke fondly of the late owner. “Every game, really, is for the McNair family, and I know he’s watching over us. We’re going to make sure we make him proud,” Watson said then.

In other words, nothing would get in the way of the uneasy public peace between the league and its labor. Not Kaepernick, not Trump, and not even a racist comment by one of his wealthy supporters who also happened to be an NFL team owner.

But in these tumultuous days since Floyd’s death, the path of least resistance has become spontaneous allyship. Celebrities, corporations, and many other brands are now publicly supporting Black Lives Matter and related movements because their previous silence or, even worse, resistance is no longer tenable. “American brands have rushed to show where they stand, but it’s still uncertain what they intend to offer—what they can offer—beyond greater awareness of their existence and a vague sense of virtue,” wrote Amanda Mull for the Atlantic.

Everything I know about the NFL tells me that Goodell and the league were pressed to publicly change their tune not by the players but by the example of a disparate group of corporations, from Amazon and Netflix to Citigroup and Sephora. It’s hard to overemphasize how safe and uncontroversial the NFL’s timing was. But consider that Goodell’s statement came after Taylor Swift tweeted about white supremacy. Only weeks after the start of Kaepernick’s protest in 2016, a Reuters poll found 72 percent of Americans said they thought he was being unpatriotic and 61 percent said they didn’t support his protest. By contrast, new polling now shows a majority of Americans believe racism and discrimination is “a big problem” and believe that the protesters’ anger is justified.

What did the NFL have to lose by supporting Black Lives Matter now? Nothing.

Players like Michael Thomas (who collaborated with a “rogue” NFL social media employee on the viral video), Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Watson, and the other young black NFL stars deserve lots of credit for pressuring Goodell to respond and acknowledge the league’s earlier shortcomings. Watson, in particular, has come a long way in a short amount of time. Which makes sense: He’s only 24 years old and obviously still learning the power of his voice and stature. But the players also know which way the wind blows, and they owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to organizers who laid the groundwork for this sort of activism to become mainstream enough that even the NFL can no longer deny it. And it’s notable that their video, and Goodell’s, makes no mention of one of those organizers: Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick hasn’t responded to Goodell’s video yet, but two people close to him have made it clear they’re unimpressed by the NFL’s eleventh-hour pandering. Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, retweeted the video and added, “And you @nflcommish STILL have @Kaepernick7 blackballed for peacefully protesting.” Kaepernick’s friend and former teammate Eric Reid, who’s been calling out the hypocrisy in NFL teams’ public statements of support for #BLM while denying Kaepernick, simply tweeted out the “thinking face” emoji.

They know well that the NFL isn’t sincere in its commitment to rooting out racism within its own ranks. It was only a few months ago that the league set up a workout in Atlanta for Kaepernick that devolved into a media circus and ended with no teams calling him for a follow-up. In February, during the buildup to the Super Bowl, the NFL’s business partner Jay-Z said it was time to move on past Kaepernick. And it was only a couple of weeks ago that Diab called out the NFL for listing Kaepernick as “retired” on the league’s official website. “Colin did NOT retire. You cowards blackballed him bc he peacefully protested against police brutality,” she tweeted.

Kaepernick knows—better than almost anyone else—that Goodell’s empty gestures tell us nothing about what the NFL thinks of black lives. They tell us, instead, what the NFL thinks of white fans.

Listen to a conversation about Goodell’s statement on an episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, OvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.