NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday evening acknowledged that the league was at fault in how it has dealt in recent years with its players’ position on the treatment of black people in the United States.
“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier,” he said in an 81-second video statement that sought to unite the league on a divisive issue.
And he spoke bluntly about the state of the nation and its race relations, saying, “I personally protest with you.”
It was an extraordinary moment in what has been a four-year struggle for the NFL to deal with concerns among many of its players and other employees over the treatment of African-Americans, particularly by law enforcement officials.
While Goodell did not specifically mention Colin Kaepernick, who was the center of a controversy that began in 2016, many saw a clear reference to the former 49ers quarterback and his decision to kneel in protest during the pregame national anthem.
When President Donald Trump took issue with that protest at a rally in Alabama in September 2017, sharply criticizing players who did so and calling on the NFL to fire them, the matter became a political football that roiled the league.
The NFL struggled for two years to find a consistent policy, in the process alienating fans of all political stripes.
The matter flared again on Wednesday when Saints quarterback Drew Brees said in an interview that he takes issue with people disrespecting the flag and military in that fashion — an echo of the battles of 2016, ’17 and ’18. Brees’ remarks prompted a furious backlash from many players during a tumultuous week of non-violent and violent protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd last month while in police custody in Minneapolis.
They accused Brees of still not understanding Kaepernick’s motivation, which primarily was to protest treatment of black people by the police.
Brees apologized on Thursday. On Friday, Trump wrote on Twitter that Brees should not have done so and closed with the words “NO KNEELING!”
That prompted a lengthy reply from Brees to Trump on social media in which he wrote in part, “Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been.
“We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
On Thursday night, a group of NFL players — including the Giants’ Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard and the Jets’ Jamal Adams — posted an emotional video about racial inequality that demanded further action from the NFL.
On Friday night, the NFL posted that video with the words, “Players, we hear you. #StrongerTogether”
Goodell’s statement appeared to be recorded at his home in Westchester County. He did not mince words.
First, the commissioner expressed condolences to the families of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, “and the families who have endured police brutality.”
He went on from there:
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism, and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.
“We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country.
“Without black players, there would be no National Football League and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.
“We are listening. I am listening. And I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family.”