The NFL Was Disingenuous About Black Lives Matter
Colin Kaepernick made the goal and importance of his protests obvious. He explained his position at length both in the media and to the National Football League directly, but the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, acted like he didn't understand the message of the protest.
December 4, 2020Updated 1 month ago
Kaepernick made it clear that he was simply calling out racial inequality in America. From the very beginning, Kaepernick clarified again and again the purpose of his protests. As he told multiple sources, the protest was not intended to be disrespectful of U.S. armed forces or the American flag. He said up-front that his protest was about persistent racial injustice. He also explained his thinking behind taking a knee.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 9, 2012.Mike Morbeck
When the quarterback started his protest in August 2016, he was clear about its cause: ongoing racism in the U.S. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he told NFL Media in 2016.
"To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way," he said. "There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
His protest was responding in particular to the racist—and often fatal—treatment of people of color by law enforcement. The month prior, Alton Sterling became the latest Black man shot and killed at the hands of the police.
After the incident, Kaepernick spoke out, writing on his Instagram: “This is what lynchings look like in 2016!” He added: “Another murder in the streets because the color of a man’s skin, at the hands of the people who they say will protect us. When will they be held accountable?”
Goodell must have known that, too. He had to have understood what Kaepernick's protest was all about. Beyond the simple logic of what Kaepernick was doing, he explained it again and again. The quarterback was clear, and Goodell is surrounded by people who could have further clarified what taking a knee was all about.
Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com
There was a ton of conversation about this. When Kaepernick began kneeling at NFL games as a gesture in support of Black Lives Matter, both the media and the league itself discussed the protest at length for months on end. There were dozens of articles that came out in the first few days alone after he first began his protest. Whether in interviews or through other media, the nation as a whole discussed this at length.
Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock.com
The owners talked extensively about it. The discussion among the NFL went on for months. There was even a league-wide summit on it. In that summit, the owners spoke with executives and players to reckon with the meaning of the protests. The summit even included insight from some of Kaepernick's closest confidants.
Ken Durden / Shutterstock.com
Goodell organized a summit in 2018 in which 30 of the top owners, players, and league executives got together to discuss the kneeling protests. The three-hour, closed-door meeting was a rare opportunity for players and owners to meet and discuss the topic together.
In the meeting, Eric Reid—Kaepernick's former teammate and the first NFL player to join his protest—said he felt the league had "hung [Kaepernick] out to dry."
According to the New York Times, he added: “Nobody stepped up and said we support Colin’s right to do this. We all let him become Public Enemy No. 1 in this country, and he still doesn’t have a job.”
The owners, for their part, were more concerned that continued ire from President Donald Trump over the protests was becoming a black mark on the NFL. The Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie, warned against being "baited" by Trump, saying the NFL needed to present a united front.
During the course of that meeting, Goodell would have been able to hear from all sides of the discourse in order to understand what the protest was all about.
And there were an inordinate number of news articles about it. Coverage appeared in nearly every major news outlet, ranging from conservative to liberal. Especially in the weeks following Kaepernick's first protest, the articles were nearly non-stop. One major newspaper published more than two dozen articles in the first two weeks alone.
Discussion of Kaepernick's protest appeared in nearly every major news outlet, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to cable news networks.
For example, the New York Times published 27 articles in the two weeks (Aug. 30—Sept. 12) following the initial incident. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal published the article, "Sixteen Thoughts on Colin Kaepernick" Sept. 7, 2016 discussing the issue.
The NFL's own media outlet conducted an exclusive interview with Kaepernick in which he explained his position, immediately after the game Aug. 26, 2016 when he took a knee.
What's more, the media discussion lasted for years. The articles and stories have not stopped since Kaepernick first kneeled in 2016.
Taking a knee to show objection to something is a simple concept. The gesture has existed in human body language for at least a thousand years. It is easily recognized as a gesture of respect or deference, or even a sign of mourning or sadness. Taking a knee is so common that it even exists in other mammals.
Kneeling is one of the most understandable and recognized positions a person can take. It is a simple position to enter into for the person kneeling and is easily identified by observers.
It takes its cues from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: reducing the body's appearance shows respect, esteem, and deference. According to an article in Scientific American, kneeling "...is seen, for example, in dogs and chimps, who reduce their height to show submissiveness."
The Scientific American went on to write: "Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection."
The act is so obviously polite that it has stood as a sign of respect for thousands of years. For example, Christianity cites it in numerous instances in the Bible.
In Psalm 95:6 it states, "Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;" in Chronicles 29:29, "Now at the completion of the burnt offerings, the king and all who were present with him bowed down and worshiped," and in Mark 10:17, "As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" to name a few.
The NFL is a huge organization. Goodell has a complete organization of lieutenants and advisors that could have helped explain it to him. One of his thousands of employees, including his close personal contacts, could have given Goodell insight into Kaepernick's protest. He must have either ignored their insight or not asked their advice.
The NFL has close to 3,000 employees according to LinkedIn. As the head of an organization with such a large staff, Roger Goodell clearly has a litany of support available to him.
Roger himself is a highly paid executive, earning over $34 million according to the NFL's 2014 Form 990, with other reports showing his earnings greater than $40 million each year from 2013 to 2018. With compensation this high as the head of a large organization, he obviously has a lot of assistants, advisors and officers reporting to him.
His list of first officers includes a number of highly paid executives, with a CFO, EVP & General Counsel, EVP of Media, EVP of Business Ventures, EVP of Football Operations and EVP of Human Resources, each earning over $1 million per year.
Additionally, the organization's Form 990 shows over $6 million paid to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrisson LLP, one of New York's top law firms. Obviously, he has plenty of attorneys available to advise him, too.
Any number of these colleagues likely could have explained the meaning behind the protests, had he so asked. That Goodell continued to misunderstand seems to represent willful ignorance on his part.
Kaepernick kneeled after consulting with a military vet. Kaepernick discussed the issue with veteran Nate Boyer before he took the knee—explicitly so he would be able to go about his protest in a respectful way. He told Kaepernick kneeling would be more respectful than sitting during the national anthem.
Retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer is credited with convincing Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem. During the first games that Kaepernick protested during the national anthem, he simply sat on the bench rather than standing with the rest of the team during the anthem.
Boyer was among many Americans who had been angered by Kaepernick's decision to sit. Boyer himself is even a former NFL player, having played a brief stint for the Seattle Seahawks.
Instead of letting his feelings get the better of him, he wrote a letter voicing his concerns to Kapernick. Boyer explained all that the flag and the anthem meant to veterans like himself.
To his suprise, Kaepernick reached out, asking to meet with him in the team's hotel lobby. They discussed their differing feelings about the flag and the protest.
As Boyer later explained to NPR: "I suggested him taking a knee instead of sitting even though I wanted him to stand, and he wanted to sit. And it was, like, this compromise that we sort of came to. And that's where the kneeling began."
Boyer came up with the idea of kneeling because he thought it was more respectful. As he pointed out in the same interview, someone kneels when they're being knighted, or asking someone to get married. It's a sign of paying respect.
He was not being unpatriotic when he kneeled. Beyond expressly seeking out the counsel of veterans to be respectful of their sacrifice, Kaepernick made it clear in many interviews that he was not trying to be unpatriotic. He stated again and again that his protest was not meant to be against the flag or the armed forces.
Kaepernick said from the start that he was not trying to be unpatriotic or to disrespect the armed forces, which is why he sought out the most respectful way of voicing his dissent. In fact, the opposite could be argued: Protest is patriotic.
As one journalist wrote: "It is a nationalist insinuation to suggest that a flag could be 'disrespected' through protest. Airing one’s voice is a hallmark of a democracy, not a threat to it."
By using his position of power to speak out for the voiceless, he was fighting for equality and advocating for some of America's most foundational values. In exercising his right to free expression, he was fighting for "freedom, liberty, and justice for all."
Longtime NBA coach Gregg Popovich argued that what Kaepernick did was the essence of patriotism. "Being a patriot is somebody that respects their country and understands that the best thing about our country is that we have the ability to fix things that have not come to fruition for a lot of people so far," he told ESPN.
Popovich continued, saying: "Being a critic of those inequalities does not make you a non-patriot. It's what makes America great, that you can say those things and attack those things to make them better. That's what a lot of other countries don't have."
By obscuring their reticence to act behind a veil of feigned confusion, the NFL was able to effectively avoid taking a stance on Black Lives Matter for years. But the facts of what was happening behind the scenes prove that the NFL commissioner must have understood what was at stake.
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