With its statement following a week of protests against the police killing of George Floyd, the NFL confirmed some valid concerns about the movement being mainstreamed and co-opted by forces at odds with its mission. While the statement, attributed to commissioner Roger Goodell, didn’t name Black Lives Matter, the police, or any actionable solution to achieve justice, its implications were clear. Goodell and the league had stumbled backward into tacitly acknowledging the very causes that Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the league over protesting.
During ESPN’s “The Return of Sports” special on Monday, Goodell went further and claimed that he’d welcome Kaepernick’s return to the NFL. “If he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then obviously it’s gonna take a team to make that decision. I welcome that, support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that,” he said. This is a noticeable shift from Goodell stating the league had “moved on” from Kaepernick last December, following their bungled workout.
But this messaging isn’t exactly a break from Goodell’s efforts to leave the Kaepernick issue up to individual teams and owners, even if he seems to be more effusive about it now. Just last year, he claimed that “if a team decides that Colin Kaepernick or any other player can help their team win, that’s what they’ll do.” He continued: “they want to win, and they make those decisions individually in best interest of their club."
After Donald Trump began his crusade against the anthem protests, Goodell caved to pressure and bad faith attacks by introducing the national anthem policy in 2018, which required players to stand or remain in the locker room while it played. Even if this was abandoned soon after being barely enforced for two months, it was abundantly clear that Goodell didn’t intend to leave the anthem protests up to NFL owners. (Nevermind that Jerry Jones, one of the league’s most insidious owners, kneeled with the Cowboys before demanding they stand for it going forward.)
Goodell has been nothing if not committed to abdicating responsibility to the very same owners whose collusive practices kept Kaepernick out of the league since he became a free agent in 2017. There was never any question that he, at the very least, deserved a roster spot, given how many teams cycled through second and third stringers in the interceding years. Even if Kaepernick is no longer a top 10 starter in the league by any stretch, taking a flyer on him over the likes of Chase Daniel, Matt Schaub, Trevor Siemian, and so many more would have been automatic for a team that actually wants to win.
The past few weeks have been nothing if not extremely validating for Kaepernick’s anthem protests. Amid hand wringing over unpeaceful and peaceful protesting — the latter being exactly what got blackballed Kaepernick from the league — Black Lives Matter is polling better than nearly any comparable activist movement. Even cops, in many cases hours before brutalizing those same protesters, have wrestled away Kaepernick’s protest against racist policing for themselves.
Goodell’s latest statement is only an acknowledgement of where public opinion has shifted. Now that the protest movement is incredibly popular and likely less of a financial liability for Goodell — especially when trollish fans are hungry enough for the return of sports that any substantial boycott seems impossible — he can publicly support Kaepernick’s return while understanding the league has still effectively “moved on.” Don’t believe a word of it.