Alexander: NFL and Goodell need to take at least one more step

Roger Goodell seemed sincere. Then again, most salesmen do.

The commissioner of the NFL, reportedly at the urging of an influential group of players, recorded a statement last week that was for this league a groundbreaking repudiation of racism and an apology for its previous stance discouraging peaceful protest.

But one thing was missing.

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” he said. “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.”

Maybe he truly was sincere. I’d like to think so. But nowhere in that one minute and 21-second statement was there any acknowledgment of Colin Kaepernick, the man who first protested to call attention to systemic racism and police brutality toward black people – and was basically ostracized from the league because of it, thanks to pressure from so many who either didn’t understand or willfully misinterpreted his reason for taking a knee during the National Anthem.

An apology would have been nice. But the league and its commissioner could and should do more, and Rev. Al Sharpton cut to the heart of that issue at Tuesday’s funeral for George Floyd in Houston: “The head of the NFL said, ‘Yeah, maybe we were wrong. Football players — maybe they did have the right to peacefully protest.’ Well, don’t apologize – give Colin Kaepernick his job back!”

Do you understand now what Kaepernick was getting at? Have the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, laid atop so many others – Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, etc. – finally convinced you that Kaepernick wasn’t protesting the flag, or our military, but rather the original sin that still stains our society?

Consider what Kaepernick said at the very beginning. He’d sat through the anthem earlier in the 2016 preseason with hardly anyone noticing. But before the 49ers’ final exhibition against the Chargers at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium he and teammate Eric Reid knelt, at the suggestion of Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret. Kaepernick received loud, persistent boos whenever he was on the field, but he also signed autographs for 15 minutes at the conclusion of that game.

“I’m not anti-American,” he said that night. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better … There are issues that still need to be addressed, and (taking a knee) was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”

As often happens, the surrounding noise overwhelmed the original message. And we know what happened next: A presidential candidate used the tumult to his benefit, and uncomfortable NFL owners squirmed, caught between the part of the fan base that objected and dozens of other players who joined the protest by sitting, kneeling or raising a fist.

Worth noting: The NFL tried to mandate either standing for the anthem or staying in the locker room before the 2018 season, a policy that pleased nobody and was quickly abandoned.

And since the end of the 2016 season, when his contract with the 49ers expired, Kaepernick has been a quarterback without a team. An NFL-organized “workout” for interested teams last November turned out to be a dog-and-pony show that Kaepernick mistrusted enough to abandon, holding his own workout elsewhere in the Atlanta area. Eight scouts watched, but no NFL team followed up.

Yet Cal sociology professor Harry Edwards told the Washington Post last fall that Goodell was quietly urging teams to consider looking at Kaepernick, saying: “If it had been up to Roger, Colin never would have been out of the league.”

But Edwards, for five decades a respected and authoritative voice on issues involving race and sports, also noted that Goodell can’t tell teams who to hire or fire. The commissioner oversees, yet at the same time works for, 32 owners of various backgrounds and political persuasions. And while a collusion suit against the league was settled last year, there’s little sense that individual teams’ snubs of Kaepernick will end soon.

Now 32, he’s been out of the NFL for three seasons, and while he did show some skills in that November workout – and is, according to one report this week, “training like a maniac” in hopes of another shot – teams seem to have moved on.

It only takes one team to change that. Should someone actually sign Kaepernick, even as a potential backup, all of those corporate statements of support from the league and its teams might carry some validity.

Until then, and absent any official recognition that he was right, they’re just noise.

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@Jim_Alexander on Twitter 




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