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The Conversation Around NFL Protests Has Changed. How Will the League React This Time?

The reaction to Drew Brees’s comments last week shows that players will no longer remain silent as peaceful demonstrations are called unpatriotic. Thus far, Roger Goodell appears to be listening, but will the league support its players if the protests again become a divisive issue?

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Shortly before Roger Goodell became NFL commissioner in September 2006, he had a conversation with Harry Edwards, a civil rights activist, sociology professor at Berkeley, and consultant to the San Francisco 49ers. Goodell wanted input on what awaited him in his new role. Edwards told him that the league would change as more black players became stars who could challenge the status quo. Edwards reflected on that conversation during an interview with The Undefeated’s Jim Trotter and Jason Reid in February 2018. “I don’t think [Goodell] really wrapped his mind around what that meant,” Edwards said. “These athletes don’t leave the issues that they have in the community at the locker-room door; those come into the locker room. … He was going to have to deal with some sociopolitical issues that were extrainstitutional that were going to come over the stadium wall.”

Almost 14 years later, Edwards’s words are as insightful as ever. Protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the United States continue more than two weeks after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a black man, on May 25, just a few months after white Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor, a black woman, on March 13. Hundreds of American cities are calling for accountability, justice, and reform. Such calls have also spread to the NFL, which continues to deny employment to Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who in 2016 protested police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S. by kneeling during the national anthem.

On Thursday, NFL players including Michael Thomas, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley, Jamal Adams, and Ezekiel Elliott released a video demanding the NFL publicly “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting,” and state that “black lives matter.” Goodell repeated most of their statement in a video posted to social media within 24 hours. A few key phrases, like “silencing our players,” were changed, and he did not mention or apologize to Kaepernick. Still, Goodell’s video showed solidarity with black players and black communities, and drew criticism from President Donald Trump.

Two of the players in the above video, Mahomes and Watson, are the starting quarterbacks for the teams that are scheduled to square off in the first game of the coming NFL season. Watson marched in a Black Lives Matter protest in Houston, while Mahomes used his platform after winning Super Bowl MVP honors to say, “I am Tamir Rice” in the video directed at the NFL. Kaepernick is out of the league, but his influence among this current generation of stars is evident.

“Just four years ago, you’re seeing Kaepernick taking a knee,” Washington running back Adrian Peterson, who was not in the video, told The Houston Chronicle on Friday. “And now we’re all getting ready to take a knee together going into this season, without a doubt.”

In the last week, pro football players have demanded accountability and support from not just Goodell, but also their teammates and coaches. College football players have revealed racist incidents at schools such as Iowa and Clemson. The league and sport have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement differently than in years past, but will that actually lead to change? As ESPN’s Howard Bryant wrote, “Is this a reckoning, or is it a dance?”

The NFL was largely quiet on this matter last week until Wednesday, when Yahoo Finance asked Saints quarterback Drew Brees how he would feel if NFL players once again protested racism and police brutality during the national anthem this season. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America, or our country,” Brees said, echoing a talking point that critics of the protests have used since 2016 and one that Brees has stated multiple times in recent years. Within hours, dozens of high-profile athletes, including current and former Saints teammates, criticized Brees’s statements. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted, “That uncomfortable conversation you are trying to avoid by injecting military into a conversation about brutality and equality is part of the problem.” Saints receiver Michael Thomas tweeted, “We don’t care if you don’t agree.” New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins, a cofounder of the Players Coalition, which promotes social justice and racial equality, posted a video to Instagram in which he directly addressed the quarterback: “Drew Brees, if you don’t understand how hurtful, how insensitive your comments are, you are part of the problem.”

Brees apologized amid the swift backlash, first with a written message posted to Instagram on Thursday and then with a video. He also gave an apology to teammates in a remote team meeting. “In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country,” Brees wrote. “They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.”

Brees’s comments resurfaced on Friday when Trump tweeted that the quarterback should not have walked back his initial remarks. Brees responded by rejecting Trump’s message and, in a stark reversal of position, explaining how the issue is not and has never been about the American flag. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities,” Brees wrote on Instagram. “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.”

Brees’s response may hint at wider change in the NFL. When Kaepernick protested racism and police brutality in 2016, his message was clear. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he explained in August of that year. A few weeks later, he pledged to donate $1 million to charities fighting for racial equality and told reporters, “I’m not anti-America. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

But most Americans did not see it this way. Almost three out of four thought that Kaepernick’s on-field protest was unpatriotic, according to a September 2016 Reuters poll. The Washington Post conducted a survey in early 2018 and found that 53 percent of Americans felt it was “never appropriate” to kneel during the national anthem in protest, though the Post noted that “opinions are deeply divided along partisan, racial and ethnic lines.”

Kaepernick became a free agent after the 2016 season; no NFL team offered him a contract. A then-29-year-old quarterback who came 5 yards away from winning the Super Bowl four years earlier has gone unsigned ever since. Kaepernick and Eric Reid, a Pro Bowl safety who protested with Kaepernick in San Francisco and went unsigned in his own free agency until late September 2018, both filed labor grievances accusing team owners of colluding to keep them out of the league. Kaepernick and Reid settled their grievances in February 2019, reportedly for less than $10 million. According to Joe Lockhart, the former NFL executive vice president of communications and government affairs, the league’s owners feared that a large portion of their fan bases would revolt if they offered a contract to Kaepernick. “No teams wanted to sign a player—even one as talented as Kaepernick—whom they saw as controversial, and, therefore, bad for business,” Lockhart wrote for CNN on May 30.

Now the league will have a harder time hiding behind public opinion as its excuse. Monmouth University released a poll last week that found 57 percent of Americans believe police officers facing a difficult situation “are more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black”; that’s a jump of 23 percentage points from the same poll’s numbers in 2016. The most recent Monmouth poll also found that 76 percent of Americans, including 71 percent of white Americans, believe “racial and ethnic discrimation is a big problem in the United States.” That’s a 25-percentage-point uptick from the poll in January 2015.

So will the NFL now support its players who choose to protest during the national anthem? “I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country,” Goodell said in his video last week. “Without black players, there would be no National Football League.”

Goodell’s filmed statement was a start, but also the bare minimum. For the NFL to show it is committed to change, Goodell and ownership can get rid of the anti-protest policies that were enacted two years ago, which the NFL has on the books but has thus far declined to enforce. Goodell can also move to ensure that owners cannot threaten to bench players who protest for justice, as Jerry Jones did with the Cowboys in 2017. And as Trump continues attacking the NFL and its players in an election year, Goodell can take a cue from his players and center the protest discussion on systemic racism, police brutality, and the need for reform.

If Goodell and the league’s owners truly want to be “part of the much-needed change in this country,” they can begin by changing their behavior and supporting players in the fight against racism and police brutality. If they don’t, the players have more power than ever to hold them accountable. As Adrian Peterson told the Houston Chronicle, “We’ve got to put the effort in as a group collectively. Are they going to try to punish us all?”