The fact that the NFL so quickly and convincingly responded to Thursday night’s video from players was jarring, and inspiring. It was the finest moment of Commissioner Roger Goodell, one in which on behalf of the league he seemingly capitulated to every demand made by the players.
On closer inspection, the NFL stopped short.
As noted by J.A. Adande, a former ESPN personality who now serves as the Director of Sports Journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School, there was a key difference between what the players wanted and what the Commissioner provided. The players wanted to league to admit that it was “wrong in silencing our players.” Goodell admitted only that the league was “wrong for not listening.”
Adande speculates that the adjustment may have something to do with concerns that, by admitting that they silenced players, the league could be assuming potential liability to Colin Kaepernick. His collusion lawsuit, as Adande notes, was settled. In theory, however, Kaepernick could bring another lawsuit for the ongoing cold shoulder he continues to receive since the settlement of the first lawsuit, given that the settlement did not extinguish future employment rights. Admitting that the league “silenced” players would make it harder for the NFL to win round two, if there ever is one.
There’s surely a P.R. component to the adjustment as well. Liability or not, not listening is passive while silencing is active. The league surely doesn’t want to admit that it took active steps to shut protesting players up.
Whether the league did or didn’t take such steps remains open for debate. The league office’s position always was, and still is, that players have the right to protest during the anthem, thanks to a donut hole in the league’s anthem policy that does not compel standing — and that the league and the union have not yet closed it via collective bargaining. Some would say that the teams separately have tried to silence players, whether by keeping those who would kneel in the tunnel during the anthem or by sheer force of will.
Regardless, the final score on the test wasn’t 100. It was more like a 97. And those three points that were lost represent a very important aspect of the potential debates, discussions, and arguments to come between players and teams if more players plan to kneel and if teams, fearful of the impact on ticket sales and ratings and Presidential tweets, try to come up with ways to get them to stand.
Although Goodell encourages players to “peacefully protest” during the video, some owners may try to reserve the right to say “you can protest all you want, just not during the anthem.” That may have done the trick for some teams and coaches in 2017 and 2018, but anyone who is watching closely to current events will quickly realize that, post-George Floyd, this approach won’t work.