It was over four years ago that the NFL responded to the silent protest of a key player in a shameful manner. Former San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kapernick exercised the opt out portion of his contract, then found that there was no team willing to take a chance on even giving him a tryout or adding him as a backup, despite the fact he’d come off a season where he had 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in limited duty. Kaepernick was judged as too controversial, particularly after President Trump personally attacked both Kapernick and the NFL for even allowing protests in general. In the fall of 2017 Trump called for the NFL to fire any players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem, claiming this was “disrespectful to the flag,” despite the fact Kaepernick had repeatedly said he was protesting police brutality and social injustice.
So it was quite a turnaround last week when the NFL issued first what came remarkably close to being an apology to Kaepernick (despite not mentioning his name), then commissioner Roger Goodell released a second statement in support of the players’ right to protest. The actions were also an acknowledgement that the league, which is 70 plus percent Black on the playing field but continues to have enormous diversity problems in coaching and management, had made some major mistakes in its past attempts to address racial issues.
Goodell’s first statement said the NFL apologized for not paying heed to the concerns of Black players earlier, and said it supports the right to protest peacefully. Later in the week a video was released featuring the contributions of notable players, among them Super Bowl and league MVP Patrick Mahones, calling on the league to forcefully reject both racism and police brutality. This came shortly after New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees criticized kneeling as disrespecting the flag as well. Brees later retreated after he was criticized in multiple quarters, and issued two apologies. The second one directly responded to Trump, who continued with his comments claiming that players should not be able to protest during the playing of the anthem.
Trump attacked Brees for his new stance, claiming he had bowed to pressure. He also restated his opposition to players kneeling during the playing of the anthem, saying “We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart,” the president wrote. “There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag — NO KNEELING!” As is often the case, Trump is incapable of either learning from past mistakes or being wiling to acknowledge them. By contrast, Brees wrote in his second apology on Instagram that he now understood “this is not an issue about the American flag. It never has been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our Black communities.”
Of course, the issue remains a simmering one. It will be interesting to see what the league does if the season begins on time and players resume their kneeling protests during the playing of the anthem. Former NFL MVP and current Washington running back Adrian Peterson announced last week he would be kneeling in protest during the year, and added he expected to see many players across both conferences join him. There’s been no statement yet from the NFLPA, but if the comments Goodell made last week are genuine, the league won’t try to prevent kneeling protests or take action against any players that do. That flies in the face of comments made by owners like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, who three years ago threatened to fire any member of his squad who joined in the protests.
Also left unresolved is the question of whether any team is willing to give Kaepernick another shot. He’s been out of. football since 2016, but is still only 32. Assuming he even still wants to play (which isn’t necessarily the case), will any team take the chance and not be frightened by the accompanying publicity and controversy?
Whatever the case, last week did mark, at least on paper, a major change of heart by the NFL. Only time will tell if it elicits genuine and ongoing changes in policy and hiring practices.