After the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, enough people in and around the NFL said just enough about the potential return of quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the NFL to create the impression that Kaepernick would indeed be back. With Labor Day looming, that hasn’t happened.
What has happened most recently is that Commissioner Roger Goodell has submitted to an interview with Emmanuel Acho, for his Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man digital series. Acho asked Goodell among other things what he would say to Kaepernick, the catalyst for the anthem, as a public expression of apology or remorse.
“The first thing I’d say is I’d wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,” Goodell said.
The apology at that instant pivoted to an effort to subtly blame Kaepernick for not doing more to let the league know what he was kneeling about and what he was trying to bring attention to.
“We had invited him in several times to have the conversation, have the dialogue,” Goodell added. “I wish we had the benefit of that. We never did. And, you know, we would have benefited from it. Absolutely.”
But what more did the league need to hear about what Kaepernick was kneeling about and trying to bring attention to, beyond the explanation that he gave publicly at the time he began protesting?
“There is police brutality,” Kaepernick said on August 28, 2016, two days after Kaepernick’s decision to not stand during the anthem was first noticed. “People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part of it. And they’re government officials. They’re put in place by the government so that’s something that this country has to change. There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable, make those standards higher.
“You have people that practice law and our lawyers and go to school for eight years, but you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.”
No conversation was needed, no dialogue required to understand what he was kneeling about and what he was trying to bring attention to. Most if not all of the league’s teams, collectively and individually, simply accepted the narrative that the passive failure to stand amounts to an active effort to disrespect military, flag, and country — no questions asked and no explanations heard.
The Kaepernick controversy didn’t come and go in a brief, fleeting moment. It spanned two full seasons, from 2016 (when it began) to 2017 (when Kaepernick was unable to find a job with another team, when the President took aim at players who protested during the anthem, and when the league mobilized to try to find a way to get them to choose to stop doing it). The issue subsided in 2018 and 2019, becoming a slow simmer instead of a full boil.
Only after the Floyd murder, when the cacophony of voices acknowledging that Kaepernick was right became too large to ignore, did the league begin to embrace concepts that had been held previously kept at arm’s length or farther.
“It is not about the the flag,” Goodell told Acho in the video that was posted Sunday night. “The message here, what our players are doing, is being mischaracterized. These are not people who are unpatriotic. They’re not disloyal. They’re not against our military. In fact, many of those guys were in the military, and they are military family. What they were trying to do is exercise their right to bring attention to something that needs to get fixed, and that misrepresentation of who they were and what they were doing was the thing that really gnawed at me.”
It gnawed at him quietly, because during the four-year existence of the dispute, he had never before put it in those terms, at least not publicly. Indeed, the video Goodell prepared in response to the montage of players who demanded action from the league was the first time he or the league had done anything to acknowledge that the league was wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.
The protests that began in August 2016 were loudly rejected by those who flatly insist that kneeling equals disrespect, and the league never took meaningful steps to challenge that conclusion as unfair, unjust, and/or unwarranted until June of 2020. It has caused Kaepernick, the man who started the movement and who made other players aware of their collectively-bargained right to participate in it, to continue to be an unpopular figure, in league circles and elsewhere. (Suing the league for colluding to keep him out and securing a settlement reportedly in the $5 million to $10 million range didn’t help.) It has kept Kaepernick without a spot on an NFL roster, and it continues to do so.
That’s why nothing Goodell or anything anyone else from the NFL says about Kaepernick matters at this point. The only way to show true remorse would be to find a way to get him back in the league.
Whether in March 2017 when Kaepernick became a free agent or at any point between then and now, if Goodell ever wanted Kaepernick back in the league, Goodell has at all times had the power to make it happen, or at least to try. Whatever the reason, it hasn’t happened yet, and quite possibly never will. Until it does, any apology or expression of remorse from Goodell or anyone else connected to the NFL remains hollow and incomplete.