By Friday evening, the NFL had released an 81-second video of Goodell, in the basement of his home in Bronxville, N.Y., that served as another marker of the shift in how mainstream America discusses race, policing and systemic oppression. Goodell acted with little input from the owners as he said the league was wrong for not listening to its players earlier and now encourages them to speak out and peacefully protest racial injustice and police mistreatment of African Americans.
The lack of involvement by the owners was described Saturday by several people familiar with the events leading up to Goodell’s statement. It marked a stunning change from the NFL’s approach in 2017 when it dealt with the debate, intensified by President Trump, over players protesting during the national anthem before games.
This time, amid nationwide and worldwide outrage over the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Goodell opted to carve out a position that is strongly supportive of the players and at odds with Trump, who has called protests by NFL players during the anthem unpatriotic. One person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings said Saturday that, while owners were taken off guard by Goodell’s remarks, most will be supportive, with some possible — and notable — exceptions.
“I was a little surprised by it,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “But I think it was well done. I think it sent the right message. … It’s not going to be unanimous, but I think most owners will support it.”
Many others showed support for Goodell. New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, one of the organizers of the players’ video released Thursday, wrote, “Well said Roger,” on Twitter with an emoji of a black fist. Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, who also appeared in the players’ video, said “I agree” when replying to a message declaring Goodell’s statement his finest moment as commissioner.
But many criticized Goodell, particularly for not naming Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested police brutality by kneeling during the anthem in 2016 and has not played since that season ended. Sociologist Harry Edwards, a consultant for the 49ers who has advised Goodell on social issues and views him as a friend, did not counsel Goodell on his speech. Edwards said he would have told Goodell not to make it as crafted. He felt the sentiment came two years late and that not mentioning Kaepernick by name or taking blame was wrong.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Edwards said. “If you’re sitting on top of an organization which has three black coaches, two black GMs and Colin Kaepernick hanging over the entire NFL organization like a shroud, you can’t stand up and say, ‘Oh, okay, we get it.’ It’s too late for that. You got to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ And this includes letting it be known Kaepernick will be on a roster at the beginning of the season — period.”
The reaction of some powerful figures in the league remains unknown. Some insiders wonder how Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a member of the league’s old guard who has said his players must stand for the anthem, would respond. The Cowboys did not respond Saturday to a request for comment.
The league and owners realize there could be opposition from fans with views similar to Trump’s, according to the person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings.
“That could lead to an issue between Roger and Jerry,” the person said. “It makes it very difficult for an owner to go in another direction. We’ll face a backlash, no doubt, from a certain percentage of our fans.”
The timing, then, reflected the shifting societal terrain the NFL finds itself on. In 2017, the league scrambled in response to player protests after Trump insisted those players should be fired and referred to any player who kneels during the anthem as a “son of a bitch.” Its ratings dropped and polls indicated player protests, inflamed by Trump’s response, played a role.
Pointing to recent admonishments of Trump by former military officials and other public figures, Edwards saw Trump in a weaker position compared with 2017. Many institutions, Edwards theorized, may be less fearful of pushing back and potentially angering his voter base.
“The NFL and other interests who have been at least pliable in terms of trying to meet Trump’s expectations are going to get to the place where they’ll simply say: ‘You know what? We don’t have to do this anymore,’ ” Edwards said.
One Goodell associate said he was “amazed” by the video. He added: “Trump is in a different place now. I don’t think the NFL is afraid of taking him on this time.”
A new approach
Another person with knowledge of the league’s planning on the matter said Goodell gave a heads-up to a few owners before the video was released and those owners “were supportive.” The league also alerted the NFL Players Association, said that person, who added of Goodell and the video, “It reflected his thinking for a long time.”
One person familiar with the NFL’s social justice initiatives said, in observing Goodell over the past year, he has seen a change in the commissioner’s willingness to share his personal outlook. Goodell has privately lobbied for teams to give Kaepernick chances since he parted with the 49ers after the 2016 season. The NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, pushed by Goodell, ran a PSA against police brutality during the Super Bowl.
“Roger’s an eminently decent man,” Edwards said. “He’s a good guy. He has a good heart. He has a fairly valid perspective on most things. But in most instances … he’s caught between the reality that he knows and understands and the perspectives and desires and agendas of the owners at whose sufferance he serves. As he gets closer to the end of his tenure, will he do something that is more in line with his understanding of the realities as opposed to his obligations to the owners and their agendas?”
In public, Goodell has backed the owners’ ability to decide on personnel matters, offered no pushback to Kaepernick’s exile and presided over a policy, since changed, that allowed teams to punish players for protesting. The person saw Goodell’s video Friday as a sign he is more interested in expressing his own views rather than projecting or shielding the owners’.
“That video is not made if he doesn’t feel a certain way,” the person said. “There’s no way.”
Another video helped prompt Goodell’s. This past week, without asking his bosses, an NFL social media staffer based in Los Angeles named Bryndon Minter sent a message to Thomas, asking whether he would help create a video to share players’ voices. Minter had sensed bubbling frustration among colleagues about how the league approached issues of race. He credited black members of his team Gerverus Flagg, Maurice Jennings and Jarick Walker, among others, for helping him reach his stance.
“It’s been simmering for a while,” Minter told The Washington Post in a phone interview Saturday. “It finally came to a head with the current state of the world.”
Thomas took the lead, reaching out to players and collecting videos. Superstar quarterbacks typically shy away from social issues, but one of the first players who agreed was the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Thomas sent clips to Minter, and they discussed how it would be presented.
“For Mike to have the presence of mind to media-manage 100 pieces of video, talk to me directly about the creative direction all while simultaneously handling the Drew Brees situation, it was unbelievable for Mike,” Minter said.
Minter said he has not received blowback for the video, which was posted Thursday and has been viewed millions of times. Goodell found the video powerful, according to a person familiar with his thinking, and expressed a desire to use it as a template for future content.
League staffers — still working from their homes amid the novel coronavirus pandemic — met remotely Friday. Goodell made some calls and spoke to some players, among others. Beginning at 1 p.m., he participated in an internal town hall Zoom meeting, hosted by NFL Network employees, called “A Discussion on Race & Injustice.”
Goodell, the son of former U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell, told staffers during the town hall about growing up in the District in 1968 and walking around the streets during that time of unrest. He told the NFL employees that the events of today brought that back to him vividly.
He also became emotional when relating that he had received an email from an employee who used the word “hopelessness.” He said that struck him on a personal level, but he was also inspired that an employee would take the time to reach out. He said the league and its employees could rally around this and do something.
The town hall ended around 2:45 p.m. Goodell made a few more calls, then taped the video from his home starting around 3. The video was reviewed around 4:15, then was sent to employees at 6:26 and released to the media at 6:33.
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodell said in the video. “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.”
Goodell’s willingness to act independently, without waiting for permission from the owners, could stem in part from his level of authority after recently completing another collective bargaining agreement with the players, the Goodell associate said.
“Post-second CBA, Roger is on incredibly firm ground with these guys, given the clout of his financial accomplishments,” he said. “This is closer to his personal politics than people know, and he has always had a much better personal relationship with certain players than he gets credit for.”
Some, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, questioned why Goodell did not mention Kaepernick by name. He began the player protest movement but has not played in the NFL over the past three seasons and reached a settlement of his collusion grievance against the league and owners.
Goodell and the league attempted to arrange a workout for Kaepernick last year at the Atlanta Falcons’ training facility. The event unraveled as league officials and Kaepernick’s representatives were unable to agree on the details; Kaepernick instead worked out for a smaller number of teams at an area high school.
The chances of Kaepernick being signed by a team perhaps have increased after recent events. His representatives did not respond Saturday to requests for comment. Still, the league is unlikely to make another push, to the extent of last year’s, to facilitate him being signed, according to a person close to the NFL’s deliberations.
“I don’t think so,” the person said. “I think it’s in the hands of the teams and Kaepernick and his camp.”
Kaepernick’s lengthy absence from the game could hurt his chances to be signed. But the person familiar with the league’s social justice initiatives said he believes teams will be interested in Kaepernick, 32, and his prospects would be aided by the shift in public sentiment. Two days after Brees, the Saints’ quarterback, said he would never agree with anyone “disrespecting the flag” by kneeling during the national anthem, he wrote an open letter to Trump explaining that the protests are not about the military.
“What will be gone now — and what is helpful — is the stigma of bringing [Kaepernick] back,” the person said. “Now I think people really do understand it was never about the armed services.”