NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fielded questions on a wide variety of league matters Wednesday.
When Goodell touted the NFL’s social justice initiative, he was confronted by a reporter about any changes to the league’s policy on national anthem protests. The commissioner’s response was evasive, at best.
“We now understand [the protests] much better,” Goodell said. “We have a deeper knowledge from our players, as well as others in the communities. And I think now we want to make this platform extraordinary.”
“And working with the players,” Goodell continued. “And I was texting with Malcolm [Jenkins] and Anquan Boldin the other day, just talking about ‘we now have this unprecedented platform… let’s go make it more impactful than ever. Let’s focus on making the changes that we all believe in, that are so important, that came out of the unprecedented dialogue with our players and our owners last year.'”
“Our players obviously are very passionate about this,” Goodell added. “Our owners are very passionate about this. And I think that’s reflected in the 32-0 vote.”
On Monday, the NFL announced that it was committing more than $90 million to local social justice projects. The NFL foundation provided $3 million to the projects initially.
After an owners meeting in October 2017, the commissioner provided his viewpoint on the national anthem protests.
“We believe everyone should stand for the National Anthem,” Goodell said. “That’s an important part of our policy. It’s also an important part of our game that we all take great pride in. It’s also important for us to honor our flag and our country, and we think our fans expect us to do that.”
Much to the chagrin of some NFL observers, Colin Kaepernick was not among those included in the player representatives. The former 49ers quarterback, who initiated the national anthem protests, is currently out of the league and seeking a new team.
Kaepernick’s original reason for protesting the national anthem has morphed remarkably into a blanket movement for social and racial inequality, causes that few Americans oppose. However, Kaepernick’s original reason for protesting the national anthem was police brutality, and specifically, the police using lethal force against African-Americans.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In June 2017, Kaepernick again made it clear what his national anthem protests were actually about.
“There’s a lot of things that need to change,” Kaepernick said. “One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
The argument that police are disproportionately using lethal force against blacks is a disputed one; although the evidence points to discrimination against African-Americans in the criminal justice system more broadly.
On an episode of NFL Access in January, player representative Malcolm Jenkins largely echoed Kaepernick’s message, saying that his social agenda was to address “racial bias and social and emotional intelligence training for police officers.”
New England Patriots player Devin McCourty provided further clarification of the players’ motives.
“That was a vehicle that we used to draw attention,” McCourty said of the anthem protests. “But doing some type of protest on the field every week is not going to stop an unarmed black kid from getting killed, or fix a criminal justice system in another state.”
As reported by NFL insider Ian Rapoport, there is currently no mandate that players must stand for the national anthem.
As Sports Illustrated pointed out in 2017, however, NFL rules state the following, as written in the game operations manual:
“The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.”
The National Football League has suffered an image crisis since the initiation of the national anthem protests.
According to a 2017 Winston Group poll, the NFL was the “least liked sport,” drawing 40 percent unfavorable perception among registered voters.