Roger Goodell enters his 13th season as NFL commissioner like the captain of a luxury cruise ship being tossed by turbulence. He cannot calm the ocean. He has no compass, and no idea what to do.
He is experienced in turmoil, at least. He has been confronted during his term by a spate of player arrests, by Spygate, a threatened player lockout, an actual referee lockout, by Bountygate, a concussions epidemic and Deflategate. He had to defend why he shouldn’t be fired after the coverup and botched handling of the infamous Ray Rice video in 2014. His league was forced into a $765 million settlement with former players over brain injuries — the very foundation and future of football shaken by the notion this “game” can leave you demented and shorten your life.
This is different. More polarizing. Players who kneel during the national anthem to shine light on racism and social injustice, and fundamentally whether they have that right, is a controversy now dragging into its third season. It is not disappearing. Much as Goodell and the NFL (oh, and President Donald Trump) wish it to.
Everybody agrees players beating their wives or girlfriends like Rice did is reprehensible. Everybody agrees the sport must be as safe as possible especially to guard against lasting effects of brain trauma.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But anthem protests finds no agreement. It divides the nation, divides football fans, presenting a no-win situation for a league and its leader, the man who always defines his main purpose as “protecting the shield.”
Never has Goodell appeared as befuddled and helpless as in his ongoing inability to please either side or solve this issue.
It is righteous cause, the kneeling. It expresses the anger and frustration of racial profiling, of too many unarmed young black men being shot by police.
But even some who support the cause disagree with using the Star-Spangled Banner, so sacred to so many, as the palette for the protests, whether by kneeling, locked arms, raised fists or whatever.
Meantime Trump, sower of divisiveness, seems to delight in portraying NFL players who protest as unpatriotic, un-American ingrates who should be booted from the league. Trump hijacked the cause and wrapped it in the flag. The NFL in turn has caved to the White House pressure.
“This lifts me,” Trump told Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, according to the excellent ESPN writer Don Van Natta. (That would be the same Jones who insists his players stand or “they won’t be Cowboys” but did not remove his ballcap during the national anthem the other day if even after being reminded to).
The president meant by “this lifts me” that in wrapping himself in patriotism he is the public relations winner in all this, while protesting players — standing up for something even as they kneel — are easily cast as the villains, unfair as that may be.
“The narrative was going the wrong way,” as Kenny Stills, the most socially conscious Dolphin, put it.
The cowtowing NFL relented this May with a new anthem policy that I call Go Hide. The edict: Players on the field during the anthem must stand. Those who wish to not stand must be off the sideline.
The Dolphins created a firestorm with their own policy threatening four-game suspensions or fines for players who knelt.
The league and the Dolphins then both said, “Oops. No, wait!”
The NFL and NFLPA quickly tabled the new policy pending further review. The Dolphins clarified that kneeling players wouldn’t necessarily be suspended or fined (after coach Adam Gase said, “Good luck” suspending players). Now the preseason games are about to start and there’s still no policy and the Goodell quagmire drags on as league and players negotiate a solution. One possibility: Simply keep all players in their lockerooms during the anthem, which was de riguer until 2006..
The odd thing is that the controversy stays alive not because more and more players are taking knees, but because Trump keeps fanning the flame for his own benefit and because of the NFL’s utter cluelessness in dealing with the issue.
Some broader context here.
This was the week “Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” debuted as a television series.
This also was the week LeBron James’ I Promise School for low-income and at-risk kids opened in Akron, Ohio.
Though it might not seem obvious, both are interwoven with the conscience of NFL players who protest.
Martin’s murder in 2012 at age 17 and the injustice that followed might have been the seed that grew into the Black Lives Matter movement and what led Colin Kaepernick — the still-unemployed, blackballed former 49ers quarterback — to first take a knee during a pregame national anthem in August 2016.
James’ school? That shows the power of athletes to be involved off the field and impact social good when they refuse to just “shut up and dribble,” as a conservative TV host admonished LeBron to do in response to his outspokenness about Trump.
Athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and better than ever. More importantly, more and more athletes, led by men like Kaepernick and James, find their voices, use the soapbox of their status and refuse to be defined as one-dimensional players of games. They are harnessing an enormous power to effect change in their communities and to be leaders beyond sports.
The issue isn’t whether players should kneel.
The imperative, amid all of the controversy and Trumpeting, is to please remember why they do.