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The NFL Will Never Lead, but It Can Be Made to Follow

The NFL is a fascinating bellwether of the nationwide protests, not because of its moral clarity, but because it’s so utterly without a conscience. Roger Goodell and the owners will respond insofar as public opinion—and the players—demand.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The National Football League is, famously and very lucratively, an organization that loves to take its time. The average NFL game broadcast, for instance, includes about 18 minutes of football and runs for nearly three and a half hours; the extra time is spent showing replays, watching players mill around, and airing, on average, more than 50 minutes of commercials. The NFL draft, which could be zipped through in a few hours, instead sprawls across three days; the spare hours are filled with shots of GMs flicking at their phones, shots of players sitting around, and commercials. When there’s a chance, in a game, that the refs have missed a call, the NFL stops play for several minutes at a time, reviewing the footage at length in the interest of reaching a just outcome, and also showing commercials.

The league takes its time in other ways as well. In 2014, a video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a Las Vegas elevator, having knocked her out with a blow to the head. The video led to a national uproar over the NFL’s handling of domestic violence, which the league often punished more lightly than minor drug offenses. The NFL initially suspended Rice for two games and largely ignored the firestorm of criticism it faced over the triviality of this punishment. It wasn’t until a second video emerged, this one showing Rice actually striking his fiancée, that the league finally listened to the outrage and reassessed its personal conduct policy.

Throughout the 2000s, and with rising urgency in the 2010s, scientific research clarified the long-term neurological damage inflicted by concussions. Former NFL players gave frightening accounts of their severe and worsening problems with anger, depression, and forgetfulness. Some of them killed themselves. The brains of many deceased former players showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease that results from repeated head trauma. As concern over the issue grew both within the league and outside it, the league office, rather than owning up to its problem, chose to stonewall the players, promote bad science, and—since change would mean acknowledging the harm its product had caused, and therefore accepting the need to tamper with it—change as little and as slowly as the law and public opinion would allow.

And then there was Colin Kaepernick.

In 2016, Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the pregame national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. His act inspired a wave of protest around the league, about three-quarters of whose players are Black, which led to a sustained backlash among the league’s fans, around four-fifths of whom are white. Kaepernick’s gesture was exploited as a culture-war issue by Donald Trump during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. Among NFL team owners, all but two are white, and several are prominent Trump supporters. Kaepernick became a free agent after the 2016 season, and the league that loves to take its time did what it does best. Supported by poll numbers showing that most Americans were opposed to Kaepernick’s protests, NFL owners took their time so effectively in finding Kaepernick a new job that—though he’d led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012, and though quarterbacks capable of succeeding at the professional level are notoriously hard for teams to find—he has not, as of 2020, played another down.

Do they mean it? This was the question that was widely asked last week, when Roger Goodell—the commissioner who has guided the NFL’s obstruct-and-deflect approach to all its recent crises—released a video in which he spoke out, on behalf of the league, in support of the protests against racist police violence that are currently sweeping the country. Filming from his basement, Goodell largely echoed the language of a video released on Thursday by a group of players, including Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jamal Adams. Though he didn’t mention Kaepernick by name, Goodell’s statement represented a startling about-face from the NFL’s earlier positioning on police brutality and protest. Here was the commissioner of the most flag-and-country league in American sports saying the words “Black Lives Matter.” Here was the frontman for the group of rich, mostly conservative white owners who’d kept Kaepernick out of football, speaking up against the very things Kaepernick had been opposing for years.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people,” Kaepernick said after he first sat out the anthem during the 2016 preseason.

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” Goodell said in 2020.

But did they mean it? Considering the league’s history of resisting lifesaving reforms, it was easy to doubt the sincerity of Goodell’s new tone. How could we expect moral leadership from an organization that had let too much time pass in every way—time when it put off thinking about women’s safety, put off thinking about Black people’s safety, and put off thinking about its own players’ safety—in order to keep airing commercials?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t. The NFL, as an institution, has given us no reason to believe it has any values at all. Its values are its own success, and everything it says and does, including the things it packages as values-driven, is about nothing but making the league as large and popular and profitable as possible. Individual owners may sometimes exhibit behavior that contains a recognizable principle (this happens rarely, and usually clumsily, and the principle is generally wrong). But when the collective interests of the larger group of owners fuse into league practice, they form a gigantic, amoral machine, whose sole program directive is to keep making money. And the human-accessible interface of that program, the window that pops up to tell you all operators are busy, and your request has been denied, is Roger Goodell.

I have no idea what’s in Roger Goodell’s heart, or any NFL owner’s heart. At the same time, if the demonstrations flooding American streets had been pro- rather than anti-police, I have no doubt that the NFL would now be discovering that America’s boys in blue were the heroes keeping chaos at bay. If the demonstrations now flooding American streets had been about the unacceptable remoteness of the planet Neptune, Goodell’s video would have been an impassioned plea to #BringNeptuneCloser, and the NFL would now be donating $10 million to a newly endowed, and totally ineffective, Neptune Proximity Relief Fund.

This is true of most brands, of course. The whole idea of marketing is that you read the culture and use what you find to sell light bulbs back to it; the more morally inflected a moment, the more brands will suddenly discover that they, too, have a deep commitment to reform. Where the NFL stands out is in the purity of its cynicism and the strength of its connection to its audience. Your average hand cream or motor oil brand is so terrified of bad publicity that they apologize and change course as soon as the first wave of outrage comes at them on social media. Time and again, though, the NFL has shown that it’s playing a longer game in every sense. It takes a deeper read of cultural shifts, and is perfectly willing to cater to a less refined audience if it can make more money by doing so. The NFL has consistently been willing to endure punishing criticism in order to stand up for whatever values will make its audience eat at Pizza Hut, and in a strange way, this makes it a useful cultural weather vane. It doesn’t shift directions out of a momentary fear of trending on Twitter, and it is powerfully open to the dark heart of America. When the NFL changes its stance on an issue, it suggests a more profound shift in the culture than when most other companies change theirs, precisely because the NFL is so much worse than most other companies.

That was the light in which I understood Goodell’s statement. Not that the NFL meant any of it, or would do anything meaningful about it, but that the NFL’s insect feelers had detected new cultural vibrations at the level of the NFL audience—that the same audience that opposed Kaepernick out of a jingoistic and delusional patriotism was now ready to hear the commissioner himself call out white supremacy, and that they’d stick around to watch the Bud Light commercial afterward.

In the same way, the response to Drew Brees’s comments last week felt like it shimmered out of some other, more progressive dimension. A revered white quarterback spoke out against anthem-kneeling as “disrespecting the flag” … and then ended up apologizing for it? And stood firmly by his apology even after Trump criticized him for it? And ended up apparently learning something and committing himself to working for change? In the league in which, not all that long ago, political activism among white quarterbacks meant Tom Brady coyly positioning a MAGA hat in his locker? This felt like science fiction. But, in fact, it was the reality the protests have both revealed and helped to create, a reality that feels that much more firmly established because the NFL—even the NFL!—is affirming it.

The most obvious impetus for the NFL’s recognition of this reality is partly the NFL’s ability, and presumably also its sponsors’ ability, to read polling data, which suggests a large majority of Americans support the aims of the protests. Public opinion has shifted radically since Kaepernick first took a knee, as the Black Lives Matter movement has spread its message and as the violence wrought by police in Black communities has been underscored by killing after killing. It’s shifted again, even more radically, since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. (The similarity of the attack that caused Floyd’s death—a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes—and Kaepernick’s peaceful protest action has been widely noted by commentators.) A great deal of credit also belongs to activist players within the NFL itself, who have become more prominent and outspoken since Kaepernick was drummed out of the league. When 75 percent of an organization’s most essential employees are Black, racism becomes a labor issue. And when a generational talent and Super Bowl MVP like Mahomes gives his voice to a cause, even the NFL’s owners, a group so sublimely talented in obtuseness that they probably think golf is for Trotskyites, have to pay attention.

Of course, these two causes form a virtuous circle. Popular stars speaking their minds helps to move public opinion, and the more public opinion supports what they say, the more the NFL is forced to let them speak their minds. As calls for reform continue across the country, the NFL is a fascinating bellwether of what’s possible now—and also a thrillingly encouraging one, not because the league is so good, but because it’s so utterly without a conscience. Can you remember another recent issue on which football staked out a position, even rhetorically, on the side opposed to state violence?

Trump will almost certainly try to exploit the league’s new messaging as a base-riling issue during his reelection campaign. He did so with Kaepernick four years ago; he’s already trying it with Brees. But going after a single quarterback is one thing. Picking a fight with a united NFL could end Trump’s political career. Only a small part of his base would have to abandon him for his candidacy to lose all viability, and a large part of his base is passionate about football. That might be an unrealistic thought—the owners would never let the league defy a tax-cutting Republican president beyond a certain point—but I don’t know. So many things seem possible just now. There’s already a new push to bring Kaepernick back to the league, a symbolic concession whose consequences would reverberate beyond the sport. We are learning that in history, and possibly even in football, there’s such a thing as too long to wait.