As fears grew about covid-19, the sports world wondered what kind of long-term changes a pandemic would bring to its operations, conduct and finances.
Then came the public murder of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man under the knee of a white cop who looked as casual as if he were writing a parking ticket. The racial outrage, as you may have read, is causing a global cultural earthquake.
In sports, the epicenter was Friday in the basement of the New York-area home of Roger Goodell, from where the commissioner surprisingly ceded some control of the world’s most influential sports league to its players.
It was like a hostage catch-and-release.
The players produced for national social-media release a 70-scond video of blunt language and images so well-crafted that Goodell was trapped.
— Saquon Barkley (@saquon) June 5, 2020
Goodell’s only rational way out was to recite verbatim the words demanded by his video captors. As far as I can tell, Goodell was unable to signal to his audience via Morse code eye-blinks how to come rescue him.
We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv
— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020
Depending on what kind of actions follow those evocative words, NFL players may be in for an upgrade in status relative to October 2017. That’s when owners met to discuss how to respond to widespread kneel-down protests by players, a controversy that became a national political, well, football.
During the meeting, multiple sources quoted Houston Texans owner Bob McNair as saying, “We can’t let the inmates run the prison.”
McNair apologized, calling it “a figure of speech,” but the apology was because he was caught, not because he was sorry. Here is how one of his players, LT Duane Brown, now of the Seahawks, explained it then.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “I’m sure there are a lot of owners that feel that way . . . I think it was ignorant. I think it was embarrassing. I think it angered a lot of players, including myself. We put our bodies and minds on the line every time we step on that field, and to use an analogy of inmates in prison, that’s disrespectful.”
McNair died in 2018, but as we fast-forward to the 2020 protests, we see not much has improved despite his departure. The players’ video had its genesis May 30 in the official league statement regarding Floyd’s killing, a bloodless word salad of corporate-speak:
— NFL (@NFL) May 30, 2020
Besides drawing large criticism from outside, the lame statement from a league whose team rosters are 70 percent black annoyed numerous people in-house. That included the Black Engagement Network, a group formed within the last five years to advocate for the league’s black employees and push for diversity within the NFL.
According to an intriguing story from The Athletic, a white video producer in the league’s content creation group, Bryndon Minter, decided to channel the dissatisfaction. Without authorization, Minter contacted New Orleans Saints WR and activist Michael Thomas with a video script.
Thomas quickly shared the script with some of the game’s biggest names, including Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham and Ezekiel Elliott. Minter, aware he was committing a potentially fireable offense, nevertheless gathered each player’s video contribution and, with the help of others, made history.
Goodell was given a courtesy heads-up before the video went public, so was preparing his response as the storm hit at 6:14 p.m. PT Friday. Thomas’s social-media account alone hit 1.7 million views that night.
Remarkably, the jobs of Minter and those who helped him are safe.
“We’re proud of him, and his work,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy told The Athletic.
But getting Goodell to admit the NFL “was wrong” in not taking seriously the claims first made by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 won’t help him to manage up.
It isn’t known yet whether Goodell’s bosses, the 32 owners, knew or cared that he was choosing the truth as a seldom-used cover to save himself. What is known is that at least 10 of them have been donors to President Trump, including the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones.
Trump Friday reinserted himself into the NFL culture wars when he tweeted that Saints QB Drew Brees shouldn’t have apologized for his remark that he would never agree with anyone who disrespected the flag. Tweeted Trump: “NO KNEELING!”
Trump was back Sunday night, trolling Goodell with more insipidness:
Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 8, 2020
So now, regarding Trump and the NFL, it is on. Again.
But this time, the players have forced Goodell to their side. As well as that portion of the nation shocked into awareness by the gruesomeness in Minneapolis.
It is now upon the owners to make policy regarding protests in 2020.
While potentially dozens of plot turns nationally may alter things prior to the first proposed kickoffs in August — such as a fresh spike in coronavirus cases in training camps or NFL cities — it is reasonable to suggest at the moment that regarding kneeling during the anthem, the owners will have to tell either their employees or Trump to drop dead.
As we have learned in the worst ways, Trump has none of the discipline to govern, nor the intellectual rigor to create policy from political, moral, religious or academic beliefs, because he has none. All he knows is vengeance.
The owners must be pining for McNair and the good old days, when a simple “figure of speech” excuse could be the workaround to save a season.