Roger Goodell has a robust history of handling political and social issues as if he were trying to catch a butterfly with a catcher’s mitt. But rarely has the NFL commissioner gotten the point completely backward. If nothing else, the man is out there on the frontier of foolishness.
Goodell made national headlines Tuesday went he sent a memo to team owners and executives saying that the league will consider changes to the game manual that says the players “should” stand during the national anthem. But the various gestures protesting social injustice by some players have so far gone unpunished, because the action breaks no NFL rule nor civil law.
But President Trump’s tweetstorm rages, no matter how inaccurate or misleading, have clearly intimidated Goodell, along with some fan complaints about the intrusion of racial politics into playpens.
So despite the fact that in late September he said the players’ protests after Trump’s initial efforts to divide the league and country “made him proud,” Goodell now wants a scheduled owners meeting next week in New York to take up “a plan” to stop the stance in which he ever so briefly took pride.
Here’s where Goodell’s memo had it backward. He wrote:
“The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”
The honest conversations have begun because of the protests, even if a conversation begins on one side begins with, “Oh, hell no.” Without the controversy, there would be zero reason for most Caucasian people to give much time to thinking about or hearing from people who support the gestures. Will gestures change the minds of the critics? No one can say, except for one anecdote at a time.
What can be said is if the power brokers and some fans aren’t made uncomfortable, it is certain nothing will change.
The heart of Goodell’s motivation is his remark that “we need to move past this controversy.” He so wants this to be over, he’s happily selling whatever credibility he gained with his earlier remarks that were supportive.
But to make “getting past” the tumult the first priority means asking some players to turn their backs on the gunshot deaths of unarmed African American men at the hands of police, deaths that players thought were sufficiently appalling that they were willing to put their more-than-comfortable livings in some jeopardy. They risk becoming “Kaepernicked.”
One of Goodell’s bosses, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, went so far as to say any of his players who “disrespected the flag” during the anthem would be benched. As Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News pointed out, wouldn’t it be something if Jones had the same vehemence regarding his players’ disrespect of women.
Goodell also wrote that continuing the protests threatens “to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country.” Hey, the owners and players have been divided ever since the players unionized. And Goodell needs to direct his laments to the divider-in-chief, who turned a slow burn into a conflagration, in part by using his vice president as a tool Sunday with a staged walkout of the 49ers-Colts game in Indianapolis when some San Francisco players kneeled.
Goodell’s problem is that he is being reactive instead of pro-active. He’s behind, playing catch-up. He missed a chance this summer.
He could have started by supporting much of what was sent to him in a 10-page memo in August by Seahawks DE Michael Bennett and three other NFL players that sought, among other things, a social-justice awareness month similar to what the NFL does for breast cancer and military appreciation.
The memo was a call to positive action that followed a phone conversation between Goodell and the players earlier in the summer. It was no ambush; he knew they were preparing a thoughtful presentation, which also included an addendum explaining to the “What are these rich guys complaining about?” crowd about the bigger issues driving the discussion: Criminal justice reform, police accountability, bail reform and the criminalizing of poverty, among other topics.
The authors also made clear that they were seeking support, not confrontation:
“To be clear, we are asking for your support. We appreciate your acknowledgment on the call regarding the clear distinction between support and permission. For us, support means: bear all or part of the weight of; hold up; give assistance to, especially financially; enable to function or act.”
After the memo was leaked to Yahoo! Sports, Bennett was asked whether he had a response from the league office. He said he hadn’t, but expressed no dismay, figuring the press of seasonal business was upon all sides.
Well, now the seasonal business includes perhaps a revised code of anthem conduct that, done poorly, is almost certain to be polarizing. Goodell was already trying recast from his Tuesday memo the belief by Trump and others that he ordered all players to stand. He sent a follow-up statement Wednesday that the memo was “not a mandate” to stand for the anthem.
It sounds as if Goodell has no clear strategy. But rather than taking another shot at him, it’s fair to say that anyone would have a hard time navigating between respect for the players’ position and the polls showing a majority of fans, not just Trump, opposed to the protests, and the impact those sentiments may have on the willingness of sponsors and fans to keep throwing money at the NFL.
But Goodell should know that nearly all protests are borne from an aggrieved minority. The majority always prefers the status quo. And he also was given a rational, enlightened plan of action by players who seek tangible progress that could merit a reconsideration of their protests.
So the meeting next week may not be as fraught as it seems if Goodell truly was proud of his players. Especially after they’ve shown him a way forward. He might even abandon his catcher’s mitt.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.