BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
On June 19th, 1865, a proclamation was read in the city of Galveston, Texas. Union Army General Gordon Granger declared that by federal order, all slaves in Texas were now free. The date would ultimately become known as “Juneteenth”, in recognition of its historic significance.
On June 12th, 2020, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement intended to help commemorate that remarkable day.
“The power of this historical feat in our country’s blemished history is felt each year, but there is no question that the magnitude of this event weighs even more heavily today in the current climate. Juneteenth not only marks the end of slavery in the United States, but it also symbolizes freedom — a freedom that was delayed, and brutally resisted; and though decades of progress followed, a freedom for which we must continue to fight.”
“This year, as we work together as a family and in our communities to combat the racial injustices that remain deeply rooted into the fabric of our society, the NFL will observe Juneteenth on Friday, June 19 as a recognized holiday and our league offices will be closed. It is a day to reflect on our past, but more importantly, consider how each one of us can continue to show up and band together to work toward a better future.”
In addition to this press release, Goodell also announced that the NFL would earmark $250 million over the next decade in order to “combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans.”
Roger Goodell has been commissioner of the NFL since August of 2006. His handling of the Colin Kaepernick social justice protests in 2016 spoke volumes about his position on racism and police brutality in the USA. Because the protests by Kaepernick (and those who joined him) were unpopular and considered unpatriotic and disrespectful, the league saw attendance and TV ratings decline.
The kneeling players were considered bad for business, and those concerns drove the owners and the commissioner to outlaw the practice in 2018-enacting a new policy that threatened to fine players who were protesting during the National Anthem. Kaepernick was also essentially frozen out of the league, and hasn’t played a down since the 2016 season ended, resulting in the leader of the movement to draw attention to the causes of racism and police brutality having his platform eliminated.
In 2020, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, worldwide unrest swelled to a tipping point, and the issue of police brutality against black people became the rallying cry of an entire nation. Legislatures in sixteen different states has now created 159 different bills that have either been introduced or passed, specifically to address issues of policing and police reform (according to the website fivethirtyeight.com, referencing statistics from a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan association of state lawmakers).
After centuries of unrest, public opinion has finally forced action. The protests have been effective, and the views of Americans have evolved. According to a Washington Post-Scharr School poll taken in December of 2014, the killings of unarmed African American men in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri were characterized by the American public as being “isolated incidents” in 51% of respondents. 43% felt that they were representative of “broader problems in how African Americans are treated by police.” In a poll taken June 7, 2020 by the same organization, those numbers were dramatically different in response to the same question after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. 29% felt it was an isolated incident, and 69% felt it was a sign of a broader problem in how African American men are treated by police. The tides have turned.
The same Washington Post-Schar poll discovered that the nationwide protests were supported by both a majority of Republicans and Democrats.
The NFL, always cognizant of where their best interests lie, chose Juneteenth of 2020 to make a statement supporting the recognition of that holiday by the league for the first time, and used that platform to pledge an enormous sum of money to related charitable causes and activism avenues. It would seem to be a curious confluence of circumstances that have led the NFL, and its leader, to become suddenly sensitive to the issues of racism and police brutality. In the wake of the George Floyd killing, Goodell issued a statement:
“The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters’ reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel.”
As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society.”
The league’s apparent hypocrisy was decried by African-American leaders in swift, harsh public rebukes.
Filmmaker and director Ava DuVernay: “This is a lie. Your actions show who you are. You’ve done nothing but the exact opposite of what you describe here. Keep Mr. Floyd’s name out of your mouth. Shame on you + the ‘consultants’ of this travesty of an organization.”
Michael Shawn-Dugar, former NFL player and sportswriter for the Athletic: Colin Kaepernick asked the NFL to care about the lives of black people and they banned him from their platform.”
If the NFL and the commissioner have genuinely revised their thinking and their moral positions about racism and police brutality, they should be openly commended. Everyone should have the right to admit that they have changed their minds, and for enlightenment about social justice issues to emerge, regardless of the circumstances. Progress in the right direction, for any reason, should be applauded and encouraged, especially when those changes are being broadcast by one of the most powerful sports engines in the entire world, the National Football League.
It is certainly a jaded perspective to attribute the sudden pivot by the NFL towards sensitivity about issues of systemic racism in this country to the changing winds of public opinion. It is facile to say that the league is merely “going with the flow” of its fans and supporters, and taking this position to capitalize on the positive public relations points it earns by its well crafted press releases, banking that their efforts will be good for the business of the league, and its owners’ bottom lines.
It’s also fair to ask where these bastions of integrity were six years ago when the Ferguson, Missouri racial riots blazed. It is also reasonable to inquire as to the general disposition of the league when Colin Kaepernick knelt for the very issues now being championed by the commissioner in bold type. There were many statements about patriotism and respect for the military, but scant few about racism and police brutality from the league offices in 2016.
Four years later, the league has seen the error of its ways, and wants the fans of the NFL and the citizens of the world to know where it now stands on these issues. It has pledged $250 million over ten years to address these issues, and that’s an excellent place to start making a real impact on the slow, painful process of meaningful change.
Now, take the next step to bring integrity and veracity to the rhetoric trumpeted by the NFL:
Hire Colin Kaepernick to be the NFL’s Ambassador for Social Justice, and give him carte blanche to use that $250 million as he, and his supporters, feel it would do the most good.
Of course, if Kaepernick would get an offer to play in the NFL again, he would obviously be free to take that job, and would resume his duties as the Ambassador for Social Justice after his playing career is over.
In the process of creating this position, Goodell would publicly acknowledge the league’s mistreatment of Kaepernick since 2016, and issue a sincere apology. What better way to put real teeth into such an effort than to recognize the issues he knelt for and to literally empower him to use the immense public platform of the NFL to help change them ?
Then, people might actually start to believe they mean what they say.