By: ROBERT O’CONNELL
On Tuesday, the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the executives and presidents of all 32 teams. Its contents concerned the most prominent topic of discussion surrounding the league recently. “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem,” he wrote. “It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”
Goodell’s written remarks are the most official response yet to the players across the league who took a knee two and a half weeks ago, following in the footsteps of the now-unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose own anthem protest began back at the start of the 2016 season. Kaepernick’s mission was to prompt dialogue about racial inequality and white supremacy in America; the adopters of his tactic wished also to respond to a president who encouraged the firing of protesting players. The league’s initial responses supported its employees, if not quite fully. First, the minute-long commercial “Inside These Lines” called for “unity” in place of outspoken displeasure. Then, on nationally televised Monday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones kneeled alongside his players—crucially, before the actual playing of the anthem. Two days before Goodell’s memo circulated, Jones laid out the limits to his support and that of his colleagues: “There is no question in my mind that the National Football League and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag. So we’re clear.”
Team owners pay Goodell’s ample salary; it is no surprise that his anthem stance echoes Jones’s. But the statement also continues the quieter work of shifting and softening the players’ message. The NFL is no stranger to public crises, and it has long employed deflection as its primary method of damage control. Concussions, for example, are in the league’s telling not the inevitable results of an increasingly dangerous collision sport but rather avoidable with proper tackling, as demonstrated by the official Heads Up initiative. In calling for an end to the anthem protests, Goodell turned again to the standard tack, misrepresenting core concerns and prescribing inadequate fixes.
“I’m very proud of our players and owners who have done the hard work over the past year to listen, understand and attempt to address the underlying issues within their communities,” Goodell wrote, leaving specific “underlying issues” (police brutality, racism) unmentioned. Then, in a leap of logic, Goodell designated the actions that sparked the conversation—the protests that led to the very words he was presently writing—a distraction from dialogue: “The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”