Colin Kaepernick made the goal and importance of his protests obvious. But the commissioner acted like he didn't get it.
Last updated on Jul 17 , 2020
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Kaepernick made it clear that he was simply calling out racial inequality in America. He said up-front that it 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?”
There was a ton of conversation about this. Both in the public and in private, he could have easily learned what it was all about. Whether in the media or from trusted colleagues, Goodell could have informed himself.
The owners talked extensively about it. 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.
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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 newspaper. Especially in the weeks following Kaepernick's first protest, the articles were nearly non-stop.
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 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. 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. 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.
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."
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