The NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick and other players who kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 did not reflect well on the league or its owners. While the gesture was made to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality, it was deeply politicized by President Trump, who claimed that it was disrespectful to the flag and that players should be fired for doing it. For reasons that they likely now regret, team owners largely capitulated to the political pressure to take a strong stand against Colin Kaepernick.
The league seemingly blackballed the top-level starting quarterback in his prime when no team picked up his contract, and few even looked at him as a potential option. Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners in 2017, which the two sides settled in 2019.
Steps in the right direction
While League commissioner Roger Goodell offered no support to the convictions of Kaepernick at the time, he has very recently become increasingly supportive of players involved in this issue.
Recently, Goodell took another step by quickly endorsing a video montage of star players asking the league to address this issue after the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Goodell even went so far as to apologize for his actions, or lack thereof, and for not listening to players’ concerns. He did not name Kaepernick by name, but it reflects a seismic shift in the thinking of the NFL (though perhaps not the owners) on the issue of race in a league where a vast majority of the players are African-American.
Football as agent for change
The president used Kaepernick’s actions to spur crowds at political rallies in 2017, encouraging owners not to hire him, and resumed the rhetoric when Drew Brees first said he supported standing for the national anthem. Swift rebukes from teammates and others led Brees to rethink his stance, and he quickly apologized for his comments as being insensitive to the issues that African-Americans face.
It is an election year, with football scheduled to start on a modified schedule. Some high-profile players already stated that they plan to kneel this year, ensuring that this issue will not get swept under the Astroturf. The president seems poised to hammer this issue again at rallies and on Twitter, betting against the rising tide of support for this type of social activism.
Some believe that the players and Goodell could move the needle on this issue in even the most conservative communities if they manage to get broadcasters, sponsors and fans onboard. The time is ripe for change in light of global outrage caused by the death of George Floyd and others, and the players certainly have the platform to do it. This time, the door is far more open for them to use their platform, and to show that their voice will not be limited to talking about sport.