An unprecedented week in the NFL culminated in a landscape-shifting 24 hours that appear to have dramatically changed the league's stance on player protests. Things are happening quickly, and you surely have questions. Is kneeling during the national anthem OK now? Does Colin Kaepernick have a chance to return to the NFL? What role does politics play in all of this? Let's try to bring it all together.
In a video message released Friday night, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded to a video released Thursday night by a collection of NFL stars, including Michael Thomas, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Goodell's video included three specific statements the players in Thursday's video asked the NFL to make about racism, social injustice and peaceful protests.
"We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people," Goodell said. "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter."
The first and third statements matched, word for word, the first and third statements the players asked the league to make the night before. The middle one didn't quite match its counterpart. (The players asked for "We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting.") But from a forward-looking perspective, it did the job. Even if the NFL isn't ready to admit to "silencing" the Kaepernick-led peaceful protests of 2016 and 2017, Goodell's statement indicates that the league plans to handle future protests differently than how it handled what happened three and four years ago.
Why does this matter? Because the streets of American cities have, for the past 11 nights, been lined with protesters speaking out in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Because the past week in the NFL has seen virtual team meetings ignore football and focus on considerably broader world issues. Because the faces and voices speaking out about the issues that were at the center of Kaepernick's protests look and sound different than the ones who backed him at the time.
"This is not a black problem," Colts GM Chris Ballard said this week. "This is a white problem. This is an issue that we have to talk about, and we can't surgarcoat it. We can't go back into our bubble."
"What Colin was protesting was something that should be respected by all humans," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday. "That did take a lot of courage. That is something that is 1,000% wrong and what he was trying to fix and bring light to. And gosh, it was hard to bring light to the whole country because people didn't want to totally hear it, and it got diluted with so much different stuff."
The conversation around these issues seems different than it did in 2016 and 2017. Washington running back Adrian Peterson, asked Friday if he planned to kneel during the national anthem in 2020, said "Without a doubt. We're all getting ready to take a knee together." It didn't cause a ripple.
Two days earlier, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was asked about the potential for player protests in 2020 and said, "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." He was criticized by teammates and opponents alike for his insensitivity about the reasons for the protests and issued two apologies Thursday.
Imagine you were an NFL fan who stopped paying attention in May 2018, right after NFL owners passed a rule that said players must either stand for the anthem or stay in the locker room until it's over, and you checked back in this week to see all of this. You would think that you had entered another dimension.
Given everything that went down between the time Kaepernick began protesting in 2016 and the day in May 2018 when NFL team owners tried to implement a restrictive policy on player protests, the league surely has more work to do to convince its players and the public that it has come around on this issue. But Goodell's statement Friday said that the league would "encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest." This allows us to look ahead to an NFL season in which players might be more emboldened than ever to speak out and stand up for what they believe, and owners might be more reluctant to tamp down protests than to allow them.
Some questions that still linger for the next five months (and beyond):
What about that 2018 rule regarding the national anthem? Is it still in place?
The status of the rule requiring players to stand for the anthem or stay in the locker room until it was over is the same as it was when the 2018 season began. The rule is effectively in limbo, as the passage of it by owners led into summerlong discussions with the NFLPA.
The result of those discussions was an agreement that the rule would not be implemented, and it has not been enforced the past two seasons. No player has been fined for protesting during the anthem. Sources on Friday said the status of that rule remains unchanged as of now.
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Could these developments lead to the return of Kaepernick?
It's entirely possible that the circumstances that have brought about this week's events -- more players, coaches and general managers than ever speaking out, the commissioner issuing a statement in direct response to a request from his players, protests breaking out across the nation -- could make an NFL team more likely to sign Kaepernick than it might have been before.
There's little doubt at this point that a huge part of the reason no team has signed the quarterback since 2016 is the stance he took that year and concern about how people might've reacted to such a signing. But if the league office is now openly condoning the kinds of protests Kaepernick initiated, and if franchise leaders are directly addressing the issues of police brutality and institutional racism that Kaepernick wanted to bring to light, it's fair to think that those concerns might have abated.
That said, I wouldn't expect a repeat anytime soon of this past November, when the league attempted to organize a workout for Kaepernick in front of teams in Atlanta, but it ended up being relocated and significantly scaled down because of disputes over how it was being administered and the injury waiver the league asked Kaepernick to sign. There was a significant amount of anger on both sides about the way that situation unfolded, and it probably would require a significant reconciliation for the league office to issue that kind of olive branch again. It's probably up to an individual team to give Kaepernick another chance.
Does the NFL expect this to get political?
It already has. President Donald Trump, who is up for reelection on the Tuesday of Week 9 of the NFL schedule, tweeted Friday that Brees shouldn't have apologized for his Wednesday statement and used the words "NO KNEELING" in capital letters.
Brees replied to Trump in an Instagram post Friday night, saying, "We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform."
Regardless of whether Brees agrees with him, it's fair to expect Trump to raise this issue again if players are kneeling during the anthem as the election gets closer.
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What effect will the coronavirus pandemic have on all of this?
It's an interesting wrinkle, for sure. At this point, five months out, there's a chance that NFL games (assuming they are played at all) have to be played in empty stadiums or partially filled stadiums because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
Not to minimize the significance of the issues at the root of that, but empty stadiums obviously would make it more difficult to compare the fan reaction to protests in 2020 to the reaction the protests got in 2016 and 2017.
What will we hear from NFL team owners on this?
This might be the most important question remaining. Several team owners, most prominently the Cowboys' Jerry Jones, have in the past taken strong stances against player protests during the anthem. Sources say there was no formal discussion between Goodell and any team owners about Friday night's video before the league released it (though Goodell has conversations with owners on a daily basis, and it's likely the matter came up in some of those).
If there continue to be owners who are dug in on this issue -- as there were in 2018 -- there's a chance that things could get touchy in some places between now and September. But if this week has taught us anything, it's that NFL players believe themselves to be in a position of unprecedented strength. If a team owner is going to speak out against protests, it's a safe bet that players on his team (and others) will speak out against him in return.