The NFL's Long Walk
A week is a long time in the NFL. This week has felt longer than most.
I finished this blog post on Friday afternoon and had to rip it up and go again over the weekend, such has been the hour-by-hour, evolving nature of the story. Where to start?
As we reflect on a brutal fortnight in race relations and of civil unrest in the U.S., the National Football League has taken a small, yet momentous step as an organisation.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came out on Friday afternoon and admitted that the NFL was wrong not to listen to the players protesting injustice, racism and police brutality against Black people. The Commissioner did not directly mention Colin Kaepernick, whose protest entailed taking a knee during the national anthem starting in 2016, but he admitted the NFL was wrong not to listen to Black players.
Like the rest of the country, the NFL has been grappling with the issue of how to respond after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I’ll examine the frenetic pace of the week that passed and where it leaves the NFL and the players.
Kaepernick Takes a Knee When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand in 2016 during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and racial injustice, he ultimately put his career on the line for social justice. On the advice of a former Green Beret he had met who suggested it was a respectful way to mark his cause, Kaepernick adopted the kneeling gesture. Shortly afterwards the 49ers released him, and he has since been unable to find an NFL team.
When Kaepernick’s name comes up each year as the best back-up quarterback on the market, at the least, no teams bite. Some of the very head coaches that sang his praises last week had flirted with the idea of bringing him to their facility, but then cowered away. That’s because franchise owners often have the final say. In 2018 Sports Illustrated research showed that the majority of NFL owners contribute to President Trump, Republican super PACs and Republican candidates. What Kaepernick did took courage and he continues to be misunderstood. Arguably the social impact of the movement Kaepernick has been at the forefront of will live on, as the memory of his playing talent recedes. Now that it has acknowledged its mistakes, the NFL should formally apologize to Colin Kaepernick after allowing him to be the sacrificial lamb for four years. A Careless Brees Ill-informed remarks by prominent league NFL figures were a feature of life after George Floyd’s death. Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos head coach, said racism and discrimination don’t occur in meritocratic NFL. He later apologized for the statement.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is in a locker room and American city where Black players and people are in the majority. His comments that he would never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the U.S. (with regards to players kneeling) showed he lacked the empathy to understand different interpretations of the American flag. Brees then apologized for ‘offending people’ for his tone deaf comments. Four years after Kaepernick took a knee, he has not learned his American experience is not shared by everybody.
Malcolm Jenkins, one of the leaders of the Black player movement in the NFL, described teammate Brees as being part of the problem. Following the Brees apology came another plot twist and part redemption for Brees. President Trump told Brees on Twitter he was wrong to reverse his stance and apologize. Brees hit back at Trump, standing by his apology and said he wanted to be an ally for the black community in their fight for social justice and racial equality.
The Empowered Players If football is looking for situational advice from other U.S. sports, they would do well to listen to San Antonio Spurs basketball head coach Gregg Popovich, who is the longest tenured coach in major U.S. sports. He has emphasized coaches need to create a culture that allows players to be comfortable to speak up and the consequence of an absence of leadership. Popovich says without leadership “and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever, because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it. That also has to change.”
On Thursday, a group of very influential players featuring Patrick Mahomes II, Deshaun Watson and Michael Thomas (a team-mate of Drew Brees) made a moving video featuring the names of those who’ve died at the hands of the police or in racist attacks. The message was clear. At this critical juncture, we (the NFL players) have a duty to lead and act. The video and the behind the scenes lobbying from Black NFL employees was the catalyst for the NFL’s mea culpa.
Greater Hiring Diversity
Black and minority representation among league general managers and head coaches is underwhelming. The Rooney Rule is a NFL league policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is an example of affirmative action, even though there is no hiring quota attached to it. Last month the NFL updated the rule to bring about more diversity in league hires, but stopped short of more aggressive measures, such as tying hiring to draft slots. To reflect a playing demographic of 70% black players, the NFL needs to be at the vanguard of change by emphatically addressing upward mobility in policy that enables more Black coaches, general managers and even owners.
The league has taken some defining steps away from its traditionally conservative direction. Sincerely apologizing to black players and standing up to a U.S. president are important first steps. As is telling players the NFL has their backs on a subject of paramount importance. Let there be no doubt: Colin Kaepernick deserves an unreserved apology. If Roger Goodell is serious about backing the players and forging a path away from appeasing owners, sponsors and certain fans he should be encouraged to keep going. It’s a long walk worth taking.